Crawfish plants that employ temporary guest workers as crawfish peelers could be forced to pay hourly wages that are on average 32 percent higher than last year under a new wage calculation methodology adopted by the United States Department of Labor (DOL).
Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, D.V.M., said the proposed change would affect any Louisiana industry that employs workers through the federal H-2B labor program.
The H-2B Visa Program is a default United States worker program that permits American business to fill unfilled seasonal job vacancies with H-2B foreign visa workers so businesses can avoid closures due to lack of seasonal workers.
Shrimp, crab and other food service industries as well as candy manufacturers, sugarcane, forestry, equine, construction and hotel businesses employ seasonal workers through the H-2B program. These seasonal employees are typically paid the prevailing wage for the type of job performed in the geographical area in which they are hired.
A March 23 LSU AgCenter report estimated that the new DOL wage methodology increased H-2B seasonal worker wages by an average of 32 percent, which means labor costs will rise from $13 million to $19.5 million in one year. The estimated reduction in economic activity resulting from the proposed wage increase is $40 to $60 million per year.
“Louisiana shellfish industries are under constant pressure from overseas competition where wages are much lower than American rates,” Strain said. “Louisiana created the crawfish tail meat industry. Now it’s practically extinct. It has put United States businesses that rely on H-2B labor at a severe disadvantage.
“It is unfair to employers who need the workers to process Louisiana seafood and work in other industries to have this significantly higher wage increase imposed on them. What business could absorb a 32 percent wage increase at the stroke of a pen?”
Strain said the national guest worker policy must be revamped.
“Employers across the nation who use H-2B labor demand a streamlined process that will allow producers to pay foreign guest workers a fair wage to fill job vacancies that aren’t being taken by American workers.”
The H-2B provision of the DOL rules allow U.S. employers to bring in foreign nationals for work if employers can establish that the need for workers is temporary and/or seasonal. American employers must also demonstrate that there are not enough American workers who are available and willing to do the work.
The number of H-2B guest workers allowed in the United States is capped at 66,000 per year. A variety of Louisiana industries brought in 3,145 H-2B workers in 2011.
“Year in and year out, crawfish, shrimp, and crab processors and other food processors establish the need for temporary workers because they are never able to fill the jobs locally.”
Strain has proposed a plan that would lower process costs to bring guest labor into the U.S. by pre-processing foreign workers for a five-year period.
“Ninety percent of guest workers brought into the country come year after year to work in our crawfish plants, sugar mills and hospitality industries, many times for the same employers. We need to implement a pre-processing system that will be good for five years. If guest workers have already worked in the U.S. and have done a good job and have no criminal record in our country and in their own country, then our seafood and agricultural employers should have a more streamlined application system to bring those workers into the U.S. to work without unnecessary delays and expense.”