With President Trump’s administration reportedly flirting with the future of the J-1 Work and Travel Program, the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association are right to lead a public campaign to inform decision makers about the importance of the program to tourism destinations like Ocean City.
The impact of a decision to cut or curtail the program on Ocean City would be devastating. It’s not being dramatic to say it would cripple a majority of the town’s businesses from a workforce perspective. There are simply too many jobs in Ocean City at the height of summer to fill with American workers. It’s been this way dating back at least 30 years. When I was a teen working in the restaurant business, most of my co-workers were from England and Ireland. They were favored by business owners because they work late in the season. They don’t want or need to stop working in early to mid-August like so many employees who are college students and teachers. That’s still very much the case today, but the nationalities have changed over the decades with much greater diversity seen now among European and Asian countries, among others. To get the message across about the J-1 program’s importance, personal accounts from veteran business owners are needed. One such example came in the form of a letter from Dough Roller Restaurants patriarch Bill Gibbs, who hit a homerun with his letter on the program’s impact. The letter was quoted heavily in an article this week but the message merits repeating.
“… Ocean City can only operate in the summer with the help of outside employees. Thousands of seasonal workers come into Ocean City for the summer months. The bulk of our seasonal help consisted of college and high school students for many years. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a drastic decline in young adults applying for jobs,” Gibbs wrote. “Many have limited hours due to school sports and other extracurricular activities and some simply aren’t interested in working during their summer break. There isn’t enough year-round work to bring locals into town. We are forced to fill more and more positions with J-1 work and travel students each year. … Not only are J-1 students exposed to U.S. culture, but our American employees are also able to learn about many other cultures. Our J-1 and American employees create new friendships and with social media they are able to easily stay in contact and share their experiences and lives with one another. We’ve seen couples meet through the J-1 program and get married. This program enables everyone to see each other as human beings, not just a faceless nation on the other side of the world. It eliminates stigmas and bias.”
I have to give Worcester County Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw credit for having his Pocomoke constituency’s back. He is always advocating for Pocomoke and is predictably vocal about his desire for projects and funding to be considered for the south end of the county.
The most recent example came this week during the discussion of a possible sports field complex in Worcester and potential sites for the youth sports facility.
“Everything that comes up seems to be focused on Ocean City …,” Lockfaw said. “We need to look at the south end of the county and quit building a one-legged man.”
While Lockfaw may be right that his home area needs some consideration when it comes to worthwhile projects, the proposed youth sports facility should not be one of them. This complex would have to be in northern Worcester County to make any economic sense. Among the major requirements of building this type of facility is an adequate hotel room supply as well as a wealth of restaurant and entertainment options. If the complex were to be built in Pocomoke, nearly all the attendees would simply stay, eat and play in neighboring Wicomico County because it’s closer.
That wouldn’t make sense for Worcester County.
Included in many students’ backpacks this week was the annual report for Worcester County Public Schools. Maybe I’m a nerd, but I enjoy this document every year. Some of the statistics I found interesting included:
•Student population by race includes caucasian, 66 percent; African American, 19 percent; Hispanic, 7 percent; two or more, 6 percent; and Asian, 2 percent;
•Forty-three percent of students live in households at or below the poverty (state average is 44 percent).
•The county receives the second lowest amount of state funding each year. Of the county’s total operating budget, sources are county, 77 percent; state, 18 percent; and federal, 5 percent.
•Worcester’s graduation rate of 91.65 percent compares favorably to the state rate of 87.61 percent.
•There were 453 high school graduates last year and 74 percent intended to enroll in college, while 15 percent planned to work and 7 percent eyed military training.
•The 82 school buses used daily to transport students in Worcester County drive an average of 8,990 miles per day.
•There are nine portable classrooms being used at Showell Elementary School as well as Stephen Decatur Middle School. That’s noteworthy because Showell will soon be reconstructed and SDMS is reportedly next in line for an expansion.