FISHING CREEK, Md.
The white boat pulled up to the wooden dock, carrying blue crabs and menhaden fish and six men in waders speckled with scales and salt from the Chesapeake Bay.
Normally, the crabs would be steamed and hauled through double doors to a long, fluorescent-lit room, where dozens of employees at Russell Hall Seafood would extract the meat. But on this day, the steel tables inside that room sat empty.
“There’s nothing going on at all,” said owner Harry Phillips, “ ’cause we haven’t got our pickers.”
Changes to a foreign-worker visa program have left businesses like Russell Hall without the seasonal laborers — mostly from Mexico — who help drive Maryland’s signature industry.
About a third of picking jobs remain unfilled across the Eastern Shore this summer, as few Americans have responded to openings and Mexican laborers are stranded at home without permission to come here to work.
The situation illustrates a general unwillingness among U.S. workers to perform certain kinds of labor, some of the business owners here in Dorchester County say. It also demonstrates how President Trump’s “America First” policies have not necessarily helped those workers or small-business owners but instead have dealt them a new economic reality.
Crab-picking houses are boosting wages and expanding overtime but are losing customers — and profits — because they can’t provide a reliable supply of crabmeat. One local supplier buys meat elsewhere to serve at its restaurant because the in-house picking plant has none. And at Russell Hall, Phillips is weighing whether to pack up and move his operation to Mexico.
“What future’s gonna be here if we don’t know if we’re gonna get our workers?” Phillips said. “Our girls are right in Mexico, and they have crabs just like we have.”
Higher wages, few takers
Since he took charge of the family business in 1992, Phillips has hired 50 Mexican workers a year through the H-2B visa program to work summer through fall. Most were women. Some had been coming for 18 years.
But changes to the program shut him out this year.
The Trump administration announced this past winter that it would distribute the temporary visas through a lottery — not the first-come, first-served system previously in place. In addition, Congress dropped a rule in 2017 that said workers who had gotten visas in the past could get them again without counting toward the annual cap.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Phillips, who failed to secure any visas when the first 33,000 were allocated in February or when an additional 15,000 were issued in June. “I’m not a gambler. I want to know I got my crew.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Michael Bars said his agency — which manages the H-2B program — is “focused on ensuring the integrity of the immigration system and protecting the interests of U.S. workers.”
“We are committed to reforming employment-based immigration programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible,” he said in a statement.
Just under half of Russell Hall’s business comes from picked crabmeat used by restaurants to make crab cakes and other delicacies. For now, the company is trying to stay afloat through its sale of whole crabs and menhaden, which are used for bait.
Phillips said he has lost about 20 customers — hotels in Ocean City, restaurants in Baltimore and seafood shops from as far as Massachusetts — who are turning to vendors with a more reliable supply.
“We used to sell 800 to a thousand pounds of crabmeat a day,” Phillips said, “but now, we’re producing nothing.”
Phillips has halted construction on a new building for Russell Hall. If he has one more summer without his pickers, he plans to try to move the plant to them.
“They know just what to do and how to do it,” Phillips said. “All I got to do in Mexico is put up a building. I got people there to run the plant and also pick the crabs.”
A 10-minute drive away, Aubrey Vincent faces similar woes. While she was able to secure about 40 of the 104 visas she requested at her family’s picking house, Lindy’s Seafood, the shortage means she can’t run the business as she did last summer.
“What it’s really done is eliminate the efficiency,” Vincent said. “Everybody’s working so many hours, they’re exhausted, but at the same time I don’t have enough hands to get all the work done.”
Vincent has upped starting wages — she pays $9.60 an hour, plus $4.50 for each pound of crabmeat picked — and partnered with a temp agency in nearby Cambridge, Md., to try to recruit local workers. Of 60 applicants, only a handful were hired and stayed on.
“They feel like the status of the job is not where they’d like to be,” Vincent said. “It’s considered dirty work. It’s difficult, it’s monotonous — you’re doing the same movement with your hands all day.”
Eden Park, an Eastern Shore native who works the docks for Lindy’s, said he has been clocking hours six days a week this summer to help the business keep up with demand.
He used to work alongside eight H2-B workers. But this year, there are none with him on the docks. In addition to unloading bushels of crabs, or driving a truck in from town, he is also contacting customers, delivering crabs, grading them, loading trucks, making sure those trucks depart, and refueling and washing the vehicles when they come back in.
“My responsibilities got astronomically a lot larger,” he said.
Begging for help
Generations ago, picking was the job of women born and raised on Hoopers Island. They spent their days extracting the crabmeat as their watermen husbands went out on the Chesapeake to catch the crustaceans.
But as these couples have aged, their children have not followed in their footsteps. Many families have left the area entirely, their homes converted to vacation rentals. Young people who are still around tend to look for office jobs farther inland.
At Russell Hall, Phillips’s 17-year-old grandson begged his friends to help unload boats and stock trucks so that the family business could sell fish and whole crabs this summer.
“We’re so shorthanded,” Dylan Hall said, “that I actually had to ask, ‘Please come help ’cause no one’s willing to.’ ”
On the same day, thousands of miles away in Mexico, Oscar Hernández Trejo was laying out concrete in his village in the state of San Luis Potosi.
Hernández started at Lindy’s in 2002. He met his wife, Elizabeth, in the picking house. And he came back every year, hating the time away from his family but determined to make more than the $30 a week he would earn as a day laborer in Mexico.
“It’s what I know how to do best, what I’ve learned to do the most,” he said. “It’s like it was a job I was destined to have all my life.”
Without a visa, he was unable to return to Maryland this year. He is hoping his luck will change this fall, when Citizenship and Immigration Services is expected to release 33,000 more visas for workers to arrive in October, toward the tail end of the Chesapeake crabbing season.
To adjust to a tighter budget, his family eats less meat, has stopped going to the movies and has started traveling by bus.
Hernández said he can no longer afford diabetes medication for his ailing father. His daughter, Itizar, has thought about dropping out of college to save the family money.
In Chimalhuacan, near Mexico City, Isidra Arellanes Cruz said she has been unable to find work. At 59, she has spent decades picking crabmeat on the Mid-Atlantic coast, most recently at Lindy’s. Now, she can’t afford the surgery for her father to have his kidney stones removed.
“I’ve given my best work, we’ve stayed out of trouble, and my boss doesn’t have anything to be punished for,” Arellanes said. “She deserves to get her visas.”
During the summer months, Maryland picking operations help ends meet by selling large whole crabs, popular in restaurants and markets across the region.
But in the fall, when crabs are smaller, fewer of them are sold whole, and every part of the industry — watermen included — depends on the presence of pickers.
That’s why the assignment of visas for October is crucial.
“If we’re not staffed, there’s no point in a crab harvest then,” Vincent said.