Nello Cassarino needs about 150 workers to dehead, peel, sort, package and freeze nearly 60,000 pounds of shrimp each day at his processing plant on Harborside Drive.
And finding laborers is particularly difficult right now.
Island businesses have long complained about a shortage of workers, particularly for seasonal positions, but the issues Cassarino faces are true across the Gulf shrimp industry, Texas Shrimp Association Executive Director Andrea Hance said.
Hance estimated about 10 percent of the Gulf shrimping boats stayed docked this season, which started June 15, for lack of labor, she said. The work can be dangerous and grueling, and the industry has struggled to find domestic workers, even as wages have increased, she said.
As a result, the industry relies on H-2B visas for temporary nonagricultural workers for a big part of its workforce, Hance said.
But the number of visas is limited to 66,000 workers for the whole country, she said. In the past, Congress has allowed exemptions for returning workers, who make up much of the industry workforce, but that legislation was not approved this year, she said.
The industry has challenges from imported shrimp, but the labor shortage is the biggest issue commercial fishing faces, she said.
Cassarino echoed sentiments about the worker shortage.
“It’s hard to find the right labor,” Cassarino said. “You can get people jobs, but to get people who are willing to stay and do that work is harder. Line work is grueling.”
Cassarino has many longtime employees, but he still has dozens of open spots to fill each year, particularly during the busiest parts of shrimp season, he said. Over the years, it’s become more difficult to find willing workers in commercial fishing industries, he said.
“There’s just not a whole lot of young people willing to get into it,” Cassarino said. “Before, it was a money issue so it wasn’t attractive financially. Now, it’s getting to be more and more financially attractive, but the work is grueling and it’s a challenge to find people who stay.”
Processing work typically pays about twice the minimum wage, which would be about $14 an hour, although it depends on the amount of shrimp being processed, Hance said.
Pay for boat crews is more difficult to break down into an hourly amount because workers live aboard the boat for 30 to 45 days at a time. But workers may receive about $5,000 for a month at sea, depending on the catch, Hance said.
The industry prefers hiring American workers, but has had trouble finding and keeping them, Hance said. The association conducted a study and found that among domestic employees, more than 60 percent wanted off the boat in the first few days out and more than 90 percent had asked to return to shore before the end of the trip, she said.
On boats, returning a worker can cost more than $1,000 in fuel and means missing time on the water for catch, she said.
At processing plants, Cassarino has had issues with turnover, too, he said.
The association has advocated for raising the cap on visas to allow more foreign workers, she said.
Cassarino — a second generation shrimper — has relied on foreign worker visas, but doesn’t consider it a magic bullet, he said. The issues with labor started earlier and the industry needed to find other ways to meet the need, too, he said.
At his business, Cassarino about four years ago started a training and education program to prepare laborers for the work, he said. The program has helped retain some workers, but does put pressure on local companies, he said.
“There’s not a shrimping school, so it’s up to individual companies to make it sustainable,” Cassarino said.
“The industry has to do better as a whole in educating and training the U.S. worker. It’s a challenge and I don’t have the perfect answer. How we do it, that’s the million-dollar question.”