By KEN STICKNEY | The Advertiser

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Crawfish fans are running into a complicated menu of problems as Louisiana's industry faces what one restaurateur calls “a helluva pickle” entering prime mudbug season.

Frank Randol, owner of Randol's on Kaliste Saloom and an active participant in the state's food and restaurant associations, said the root of the problem is not natural catastrophe. Instead, he said, it's the federal government.

“We've survived freezes and floods and the BP oil spill,” he said of the crawfish industry. “But this is a government-made disaster.”

Randol said the problems rest in the federal government's handling of how H-2B employees, guest workers, enter the U.S. and are paid for seasonal work. Louisiana's crawfish processing and hospitality industries depend upon toil from those workers, most from Mexico and some from Central America, who provide labor at seafood processing plants and at area restaurants and hotels. Such guest workers are necessary, he said, because local workers won't take the jobs.

“I wouldn't be doing this if I could hire enough people locally,” he said.

Before this year, Randol said, Louisiana restaurants could rely upon supplies of crawfish processed at some 10-12 larger processors and some small processing plants in state to provide the crawfish that goes into such preferred dishes as etouffee and crawfish stew. Employers that included processing plants and restaurants would apply for permits for such workers as early as autumn in time to weather the long federal process of bringing employees to Louisiana by crawfish season in the spring.

But the rules changed in December, Randol said, when the U.S. Department of Labor said employers must change how they pay the visiting workers. Since the 1990s, employers have paid visiting workers a wage based on surveys done by the employers in the local labor market. The LSU AgCenter has also done private wage surveys to provide a more unbiased view of what comparable jobs were paying in the area.

Now, Randol said, the Labor Department wants workers to be paid according to more national, not regional or local, standards, and have added into the mix union job salaries. The result, Randol said, is the entry wage for the 3,000 guest workers in Louisiana seafood and hospitality would rise from about $7.35 an hour to about $12.35 an hour. That might drive the price of a meal beyond what consumers would be willing to pay.

“That reflects on about $3 a pound on crawfish tail meat,” Randol said. ““That has to be borne by the paying public. Some restaurants may use imports. The public may stop buying.”

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, has led an effort to send a letter to Labor Department to reverse its stand on wages. Other Gulf Coast representatives have joined him.

“This is our heritage, crawfish in Louisiana,” said Thomas Hymel of the LSU AgCenter Sea Grant Marine Extension. “If you want to eat Louisiana-grown crawfish, if you want to eat authentic etouffee or stew, the meat comes from a Louisiana plant.”

Guest worker wages are one issue. Guest worker availability is another.

Randol said he was in Washington last week explaining to government officials that the spike in wages would hamper the industry. When he returned, he learned that the “cap” on H-2B workers had been reached while discussions had been ongoing on wages. The cap is 66,000 guest workers per year, or 33,000 permits issued twice a year. Those first permits have been issued, probably in other industries that use H-2B guest workers, likely forestry and landscaping, which hire the bulk of H-2B workers. That means Louisiana processing plants missed their opportunity to hire a workforce for March, April and May, when crawfish is generally harvested. The second wave of 2015 guest workers won't be available to the plants until the season is largely over.

Hymel said most crawfish is sold on the “live market” for boiling but smaller crawfish are processed at plants for use in restaurant dishes.

“During Lent, people want crawfish in the bag, ready to go,” Hymel said. They rely on the processed supply.

“This is a game changer for the price structure,” Hymel said. “There will be some turmoil in the marketplace. There is a question if we can get crawfish processed at all.”

Randol said, “We need the Department of Labor to honor the private wage surveys.

“This is just crawfish,” he said. “But you have to understand, it also means crabs and oysters and alligator,” all of which depend upon H2B workers.

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Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com