The survey-based report, entitled Breaking the Shell: How Maryland’s Migrant Crab Pickers Continue to be “Picked Apart,” found that the many labor problems that already existed in the H-2B Maryland seafood industry were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and left workers vulnerable to exposure to the virus. The report comes at a critical time, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, and workers continue to be exposed to heightened health and safety risks.

The report, co-authored with Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant rights group, and the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic, highlights the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Mexican crab pickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The report noted that the team’s interviews “revealed crowded housing conditions, widespread asthma, and limited access to healthcare, putting crab pickers at increasing risk of lethal exposure to COVID-19.” Migrant workers are uniquely vulnerable due to barriers in access to care and support. Students assisted with interviewing 19 workers in fall 2019 (with additional interviews done later) and drafting the report, which was published in September 2020.

In a typical summer, hundreds of migrant workers come to the Chesapeake Bay Area on H-2B temporary migrant work visas to work in Maryland’s crab processing industry. Due to restrictions on worker visas and COVID-related restrictions, fewer workers were able to procure visas for this past summer. The “majority of women hired to work in Maryland’s blue crab industry hail from rural communities in Central Mexico,” many from areas with “high rates of poverty and limited opportunities for economic advancement.” Workers live in cramped housing quarters and work at crowded work stations, creating an environment that lends itself to easy transmission of the virus. Just this July, 50 workers fell ill with COVID-19 on Hoopers Island, where many of the crab processing plants are located.

Mexican crab pickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are predominantly female, and the report also found that they regularly face “systemic gender discrimination.” Women in the industry are paid less than men and are assigned to less desirable work. For instance, the majority of crab-cleaners are men, a job that pays a higher wage than crab-picking. The report concludes with a number of recommendations at the local, state, and national level to reform and improve the H-2B guest worker program. Students are continuing to work this semester to craft legislative and policy recommendations resulting from their report along with other protections for migrant workers.