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Kaine brings Save the Seafood Act optimism to Lottsburg

Seafood is not only an important part of our economy, it’s a historical part of who we are. “Virginia has been a community of watermen and waterwomen since long before there was a Virginia,” said Senator Tim Kaine on Monday. “We want to make sure we keep you around for a very long time,” he told the heads of seafood companies who joined him in Lottsburg at Cowart Seafood to celebrate the Save Our Seafood Act.

The bill aims to alleviate the struggle the seafood industry has getting seasonal workers through the H-2B visa program by making visas for seafood processors exempt from the cap that place a limit on the number issued annually.

“We’re listening”

Kaine said those who are addressing the seafood industry’s labor challenges have been listening, learning directly from the people in the industry, and working on a solution, which they believe they’ve now found.

Challenges finding enough help isn’t unique to the seafood industry, Kaine acknowledged. Labor is an issue that people in every industry raise everywhere he goes. But the seafood industry has “a particular challenge.”

Business owners, including many of those at the Lottsburg event, helped educate the Senator “that there’s seasonal, and then there’s [seafood] seasonal.”

Kaine said he’s come to understand that although an industry like landscaping is considered seasonal because weather drives a surge in business, there is landscaping work all year. “But with seafood, there’s the season and the non-season. And if you’re not doing the work you need to during the season, then the product that you were pulling out spoils and you can’t use it anymore.”

The H-2B visa program was created for “truly seasonal” employees like those needed in seafood processing, he said. The problem is that there’s a nationwide cap of 65,000 H-2B visas, which is split between workers needed in the first half of the year and second half.

There are so many applications that the selections are made by a lottery. And, over the years, given the growing number of applicants from industries, such as landscaping, the seafood industry is getting shoved out of the program.

Cowart knows the struggle

A.J. Erskine explained that Cowart experienced the issue firsthand. This year, they applied for 60 H-2B visa workers and received them all. But last year, the company was completely shut out and didn’t get any.

Cowart survived last season by somewhat gaming the system. They went on the hunt and found H-2B workers who were already here, had completed the work that brought them here, and were set to return home. The company spent about $50,000 to get 25 of those visas transferred to them.

“Without this seasonal visa program, we would not have seafood processing—at all,” Erskine said.

Locally, there just aren’t people who want to get into processing seafood, whether it’s shucking oysters, picking crabs, or cutting fish, he explained. The seafood industry’s local labor pool started to dwindle in the 1990s. Young people went to college, and some never came back. Workers that are around prefer other jobs. “They don’t want to be in an oyster house at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning where it’s wet. It smells. We just don’t have that labor that used to be here in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.”

If locals want the jobs, the jobs go to them first. For companies, it would be cheaper if they could get locals on board, Erskine explained.

Cowart’s seafood processing jobs start at $15.29 an hour, whether you’re local or on a visa, which Erskine said he believes is a competitive entry-level wage. The company has to go through five agencies to get visas, which cost about $2,000 - $3,000 each. And the company pays expenses, including flights and transportation. “We wouldn’t have that cost if we had local labor,” he said.

Kaine said stories like Cowart’s are the reality. Demand for Virginia seafood, particularly Virginia oysters, is growing, but that local labor pool is shrinking. “If you only hire people in the community there aren’t enough workers,” the Senator said. “They do everything they can and they just can’t hire enough people from here or even further afield to do the jobs.”

Problems for workers

Companies aren’t the only ones who feel the effects of uncertainty in the H-2B visa program. Moises Islas, is a Mexican citizen, who has a 20-year relationship with Cowart. Every year that he’s been able, he comes, works for six or so months, and goes home. But there have been several years he’s gone through the application process only to hear, “No visa this year.”

That is a big problem, he said. When he doesn’t get an H-2B visa, he has to go looking for other random work, and the money doesn’t compare to what he makes at Cowart.

Those losses impact his ability to pay for his son’s education and impact his entire family, including his mother and father who he helps support. Moreover, his brother also works for Cowart, so a year without H-2B visas for either of them can really hit their family hard.

New spin on existing solution

One the major reasons there’s so much optimism around the Save Our Seafood Act is it isn’t reinventing the wheel, Kaine explained. When you try to make changes do something new in the Senate, it can take a long time, and other people start to come forward wanting to present solutions to the problems they want resolved, and “you start to pick up enemies, crosswinds, and baggage.”

Kaine credits his chief counsel, Traci Hong, for being part of a team that found an existing solution. For years, there has been an exemption for fish roe processing visas, and it has been working fine. The current bill seeks to expand that to include exempting seafood processing visas from the cap. So, the idea is to make a small, relevant change that doesn’t prompt everybody to rush in, said Kaine.

Truly bipartisan

The second reason for a high-level of optimism is “this is in a sweet spot where you’ve got people on both sides who like it,” Kaine said. This bill is being driven by “a good bipartisan coalition.”  

The legislation was introduced by Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and she’s joined by Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan, also a Republican. You have Republican senators from Louisiana, including John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy along with Thom Tillis of North Carolina. Democratic support includes Mark Warner of Virginia and Maryland senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin. And the bill is picking up additional bipartisan support.

What’s needed now is to find a train leaving the station to attach the caboose to, said Kaine. The Senate doesn’t tend to pass standalone bills like the House.

“So, we’ve got the bill set up. We’ve got the bipartisan sponsorship. We’ve got a growing group of people to make it happen. And now we are looking to connect it to the moving vehicle that will get it to the President’s desk.” The coalition is eyeing “three live ones,” including the supplemental bill later this year, as well as the farm bill and appropriations bill next year. Kaine said the goal is to get the Save Our Seafood Act to President Biden’s desk during this Congress.

“If we can get it to the White House, it’s going to happen,” said Kaine with certainty.