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Trabajadores: The New Workforce in Virginia Seafood Processing

Hand washing sign

Sign posted at Little River Seafood in Reedville, VA. ©Abigail Villalba/VASG

Hand washing sign

Sign posted at Little River Seafood in Reedville, VA. ©Abigail Villalba/VASG

Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 2009
By Phil Marsosudiro

Johnny Graham is a fourth-generation seafood man. His great-grandfather was a fisherman, and in 1955, his grandfather founded the company that became Graham and Rollins Seafood in downtown Hampton. Graham recalls, “At our height in 1991, we had four production plants running 10,000 pounds of finished crab meat per day.” The plant was full of locally grown workers processing locally harvested crab. But things aren’t like that anymore.

“During these down years, we’ve lost our local laborers because there’s no steady employment,” says Graham, now the company’s president. “So we’ve had to turn to seasonal migrant labor.”

As is now common across Virginia, “seasonal migrant labor” mostly means workers—trabajadores—from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries such as Honduras and Guatemala.
The seafood producers like Graham vouch that Hispanic workers are a vital solution for staffing their seasonal positions, but of course this new workforce presents new challenges. One of the biggest is the language barrier, which makes it more difficult to train and communicate with workers about critical issues affecting their own safety and the safety of the products they process.

Fortunately, when it comes to food safety, Graham can rely on Abigail Villalba, food safety specialist at Virginia Tech. Working through the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research & Extension Center (VSAREC), Villalba provides bilingual training to both Spanish- and English-speaking workers at Graham and Rollins.

“You’d be amazed at what needs to be mentioned,” says Villalba. In Latin America, for example, toilet paper goes into a waste bin instead of the toilet to protect the plumbing. Here, of course, the papeles higiénicos go down the drain to protect against germs. Who’s going to know that such a thing needs to be explained, or how to say it, if they don’t know the language and culture?

Not Your Grandfather’s Picking House
It’s no secret that the Spanish-speaking population in Virginia has grown tremendously over the past decades. Villalba points to U.S. Census data showing that Virginia’s Hispanic population tripled from 152,000 in 1990 to more than 460,000 in 2006, now representing more than six percent of the state’s population. According to the American Community Survey, approximately one third of Virginia’s Hispanics in 2006 were immigrants (as distinct from permanent residents or citizens).

During the same time, changes in the seafood industry have led to declining employment prospects for local watermen. Adding to the pain, it’s hard to get enough skilled staff during the shortened crab season that is no longer year round, but lasts only from early spring through autumn.

“We’ve lost a lot of watermen,” says Graham. “The crab industry shrank by ninety-five percent since the late mid-80s when I remember there were more than seventy-seven crab processors in business. Now there’s less than ten, and only three of us have more than a dozen year-round staff.”

In Reedville, Little River Seafood has employed seasonal Hispanic or Latino workers since the late 1980s. President Greg Lewis says, “the first year we hired around ten Latino workers. Then we kept increasing until we recently had as many as sixty at peak season in July. We still have fifteen or so Americans, mostly in processing and packing instead of picking. But every year they get fewer. Some retire and we don’t get many new ones.”

In Suffolk, the Wanchese Fish Company hires as many as 100 Latino workers between late spring and autumn. Matt Nowicki, Wanchese’s quality control manager, says that recruiting is a family affair. “Of our 100 Latino workers, sixty-five or seventy come from just three major families that have a long relationship with the company. Brothers, sisters, or cousins—they come for three or four years in a row. One great advantage is that because so many work here for years, they know what needs to be done.” According to Nowicki and Lewis, most of these workers earn between $10 and $12 an hour and they often work overtime during the busiest part of the season.

Through Villalba, the VSAREC is helping these seafood processors make sure their Spanish-speaking staff will keep their products safe from bacteria and other contamination. “I am happy I can fill this need,” she says. “In 2006, we did a survey of food producers to ask what they needed from us. Three of the big things they asked for were (1) customized training, (2) on-site training, and (3) bilingual training.”

Villalba was prepared to deliver all three. “I grew up in Puerto Rico in a Spanish-speaking family and came to Virginia Tech in 2006 after many years working in food safety for the federal government, so I had the right background for this.”

Talking about Safety
In any language, product safety is always an issue. Johnny Graham takes note of the recent peanut plant closing in Georgia because of Salmonella. “All it takes is one recall and more than likely you’re going to be out of business. You don’t get multiple chances.”

As a long-time seafood producer, Graham knows how hard it is to keep his crab product safe. It’s challenging enough under any circumstance, but when the majority of his staff don’t speak English, it’s even harder. “Some folks are under the impression that we can run things with flash cards that have generic commands like ‘shovel crab,’ ‘give me a box,’ or ‘here comes a boat.’ But it’s not realistic to think we can operate that way.”

That’s why Villalba’s recent addition to the staff at VSAREC has been such a boon for area seafood processors. “It’s just been a win-win situation for us,” says Graham. “She’s a scientist who understands our industry, and she’s fluent in Spanish, which is essential with Mexicans as our primary workforce.”

Villalba has conducted numerous Spanish-language training sessions for Virginia seafood processors. “But always also in English,” she says, “I won’t do Spanish-language only training because everyone is responsible for the safety of the products regardless of the language they speak. Even if 90 percent of the workers are Spanish-speaking, I still want to do the English-language training.”

Matt Nowicki at Wanchese appreciates the effort. A native of Poland, he holds a master’s degree in animal bioengineering and he knows the importance of appropriate training. Nowicki says of Villalba, “Not only does she know our industry, she’s also authoritative because she’s from the government. She’s also an expert trainer who isn’t one of our regular staff, so people pay attention when she speaks,” whether in Spanish or English.

Nowicki also praises the customized training. “Before Abigail comes, I prepare a list of the things we may need to emphasize at the moment. Maybe we want to focus on cross-contamination between raw and cooked products. Maybe we’ve had some issues with certain types of equipment. Abigail changes her training to make sure we focus on the most important things.” Things would be difficult without Villalba, says Nowicki. “If we had to do the training ourselves, the programs would not be nearly as good, and would take much longer to develop.”

Johnny Graham also appreciates the customized help. “When we’re running 24 hours a day during the summer, we need a qualified quality control supervisor on each shift. Abigail offered the higher education and extra training to qualify my people for the job, so now I can have enough key people to work these shifts while other key people are in bed. And it’s very satisfying to the Food and Drug Administration and the state agencies when we can document the training that we’ve done, and when they know that it’s been provided by Abigail who they trust.”

Concerns for the Future
The training opportunities offered by VSAREC are undoubtedly helping the seafood industry deal with the challenges of a mostly Spanish-speaking migrant workforce. However, seafood processors are increasingly worried that their real problem will be getting their staff here to work at all.

As Lewis of Little River Seafood explains, “For the last three or four years, we’ve had a lot of difficulties getting workers for the seafood industry under the H2-B visa program. After 9/11, the government started enforcing a cap that they hadn’t before, with a limit of only 66,000 H2-B visas for the entire country.” For several years after 9/11, Congress made some exceptions to the cap—through annual legislation that allowed companies like Little River Seafood to bring back seasonal workers who had an established history of working with the processor. But for the last three years, Congress hasn’t renewed the legislation. “So we’ve been competing against hotels, landscapers, and every other employer that also wants the H2-B workers,” says Lewis. “Last year, we lucked out and got ours where others didn’t. We got some for this year but probably won’t get as many as we want. It’s hard to say just yet.”

The lack of access to labor is bad news all around, adds Lewis. “Put it this way—if we couldn’t get the Mexicans, we’d be out of the crab-picking business. And then we wouldn’t have jobs for Americans, either.”

Assuming that immigration problems don’t push her clients into a downward spiral, Villalba plans to continue with the training—in both Spanish and English. VSAREC Director Dr. Michael Jahncke explains, “Even for workers who come back year after year, there is a need for refreshment and updating. This type of training helps keep our Virginia products safe and high quality, and that’s why Virginia has one of the nation’s highest compliance rates for FDA inspections.”

With luck, there may be funding to add more bilingual staff like Villalba for all the training needs in Virginia. “We want to provide better training materials in English as well as Spanish for all kinds of food industries—not just seafood,” she says. “This is a big effort, and we’re way behind on reaching the diverse audience we have. We need to provide them with the resources they need. They want to do a good job. But if we can’t take the time to explain things in their language and at their educational level, we’re out of luck.”