Chesapeake Crabs Rejoice at Crab Picker Shortage

Even the H2-B visa program can't alleviate the crab picker shortage at Graham & Rollins.

Even the H2-B visa program can’t alleviate the crab picker shortage at Graham & Rollins. Photo credit: Daily Press.

For many years, the big challenge besetting Chesapeake Bay watermen was the declining crab population. As the number of crabs dropped from 680 million in 1990 to 300 million in 2014, so did harvests. The crab count rebounded to 553 million last year. Now the problem isn’t a shortage of crabs, it’s a shortage of crab pickers.

Hampton-based Graham & Rollins, Inc., one of only six crab houses remaining in Virginia, expects a strong 2017 harvest, reports the Daily Press. CEO Johnny Graham needs to staff up with crab pickers. Decades ago, he had hundreds of employees, but they have all left or retired.  This year he found only nine locals through online recruitment. Three showed up, one quit early, and only two have stuck it out.

Graham & Rollins is entitled through the H-2B visa program to hire 110 seasonal workers from Mexico. Paperwork is a hindrance. “I’d like to have all 110 here now,” Graham said. He’s expecting 25 soon but doesn’t know when the rest will arrive. Last year, he told the Daily Press, the company lost 37 days of the season because they could not bring in workers.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have two conflicting reactions regarding Graham’s labor dilemma.

First, with so many Americans unemployed or underemployed, why the heck can’t Graham find any workers? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Hampton residents find unemployment more attractive than working a tedious eight-hour day. When social safety net benefits are as generous as they are, unemployment is a viable career option.

Second, if so few people are interested in the work, perhaps Graham is not paying enough! I expect that the handful of surviving crab houses in Virginia are experiencing the same labor shortages. If Graham pays more, his costs go up but he hires more workers and moves a greater volume of product. His competitors might even follow his lead.

The only winners in the current state of affairs are the crabs. Maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing.

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14 responses to “Chesapeake Crabs Rejoice at Crab Picker Shortage

  1. Imagine doing this for 8 hours. Heck 6. Thirty minutes….it’s one thing if I’m picking them knowing I’m eating them.

  2. Employers have a divine right to avoid paying market wages. Trump may be f’ing with them. The jury is out.

  3. They are very likely paid by the pound.

    Jim, you crank out blog posts pretty fast. You should try to get paid by the word.

    I worked just enough manual labor like this to realize two things. First, how hard it is and I try not to forget that. Second, that I wan’t very good at it. I’d have no hope of going as fast as they do in the video.

  4. Grant early release to non-violent prison inmates so long as they take the jobs picking crabs and stay out of trouble. It was around 2010 that I last talked to any of my Eastern Shore neigh ors about the cost of crab picking but I recall the pay was hourly in the $7 – $10 per hour range. Picking crabs is a miserable job but it probably beats being in prison.

  5. Here’s my vote: do at least 20 hours a week and you get some benefits. Guarentee you that if you tie benefits into work like they’re doing over in England, that would help.

  6. Hey.. how about MedicAid “benefits”?

    American workers would no doubt end up with carpal tunnel issues and get permanent disability Medical “benefits” and not have to work any more!

    Of course my other thought is that I’m surprised that by now, some machine has not been invented to do this work!

    DJ’s got a decent idea… and if you combined it with health care – I bet you WOULD attract workers!

  7. re: $10 an hour – … putting aside the uber-hard work … if they work 40 hours a week – they’d gross about 21K before the 15.3% FICA tax and then the Fed and State withholding – they’d probably net about 20K.

    Think about what kind of housing you could afford.. food… utilities, a car? ..

    then if they have kids …

    these are the folks we call the “working poor” – that in Virginia – do not qualify for health care.. unless they have kids.. then they do as Moms – but not Dad…

    so we buy that scrumptious lump crab meat and wolf it down… usually totally unaware of where it came from… and what it might cost if the workers actually earned a living wage.

    Then lump-crap meat would be not for the middle class but the rich..

    Meanwhile, many of us delude ourselves by thinking that these folks “deserve” their fate because they did not get a good education… when it was offered… eh?

    And their kids? right now.. the school that is in the only neighborhood that Mom can afford to live in? wanna bet whether or not it’s one of those high quality schools we see in suburbia or one that is bumping along flirting with accreditation disaster?

    But we know that it’s those disruptive hellions that are denying those other kids a decent education, right and … thus dooming the “good” kids to an adult life similar to their parents? Maybe a generation of crab pickers, eh?

    • What would happen to wages if the business owners were fined $10 K per day per every worker not hired through E-Verify? Wages would go up, as would research in technology. Market forces (demand and price) would drive the business owners’ decisions.

  8. TMT – we’re on the same page with E-verify but I also am concerned with our own folks – working hard – full time – and not making enough to pay for their needs – and taxpayers having to pick up the rest.

    Folks complain about Hispanics living 10-15 to a house…in NoVa – what would we expect if they do not earn a living wage for NoVa?

    We talk about how our poor fail to get enough education to do anything other than manual labor – then worry about the MedicAid costs to provide them with health care…

    we seem to be Jekyll and Hyde… we LOVE the low-priced products and services they provide then we blame them for needing entitlements, getting loans for College when they are not “qualified” .. and the not-acceptable costs of providing them an occupational certificate at a Community College.

    when do we get our act together and actually deal with the issues instead of running away and blaming others?

    • If Virginia employers were fined and barred from government contracts when they hire people outside E-Verify, wages would go up. And in many markets, there’s little room for higher prices. Some of the owners might see a shift from their profit levels to higher wages. And we won’t have 10-15 in a house because most of them won’t make it under E-Verify.

      Of course, there will be automation that will cost jobs. But maybe, just maybe, parents and students will begin to take responsibility for getting something from our educational system. Society has a duty to ensure access to basic education. But students have an obligation to learn and to study. We need more fear in society. Fear that if I don’t make an effort, I’ll live a miserly life.

      And by closing off illegal immigration, other nations will feel the pressure to improve job opportunities for their citizens.

  9. re: ” Of course, there will be automation that will cost jobs. But maybe, just maybe, parents and students will begin to take responsibility for getting something from our educational system. Society has a duty to ensure access to basic education.”

    TMT, you seem to be presuming that our schools are already teaching what needs to be taught for an “education” and it’s the parents and kids who are not performing.

    Is that the reason we are behind the other countries? That all the other countries that are ahead of us – are teaching the same thing we are but their parents and kids are “better” and that’s the problem we have?

    The odd thing here is that sometimes in these blogs we blame the govt and the schools then other times the parents and the kids .. oh… and “bad” teachers… and disruptive kids who “rob” the others of an education?

    This is why the US ranks 25th in world rankings?

    • I suspect it’s some of both. Schools teaching what has worked in the past without regard to what’s needed now. Parents knowing their child is Ivy League bound irrespective of the facts. Then toss in the fact organizations often lose their sense of mission focused on meeting the needs of others to focusing on keeping the organization alive and well.

  10. @TMT – so you’d not want to try to fix that for fear the govt would expand and take more taxes?

    my view is that we cannot freeze in place.

    it’s a losing proposition.

    we have no choice but to try to fix it.

    there are risks.. with making mistakes.. there always is..

    but to do nothing – for fear of more govt or ineffective changes is basically to give up and cede to the rest of the world – the global economy.

    what in the world has happened to us ? we no longer trust govt to do reforms. We think if govt acts – it only makes matters worse.

    Over and over in this blog – a great deal – virtually most of what I’ve heard is that govt and our institutions like K-12 and higher Ed are failing us… and we can no longer trust them to fix what needs fixing nor afford it – so we just freeze in place.

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