OCEAN CITY — When the current pandemic wanes and Ocean City’s summer season ramps up, resort area employers can expect an influx of summer seasonal workers on J-1 work and travel visas, but there are many uncertainties including how many will come.
Each summer, an estimated 4,000 foreign student summer workers arrive in Ocean City to fill out the resort’s seasonal workforce. With roughly 12,000 seasonal jobs in Ocean City each summer, the J-1 students represent about one-third of the entire workforce and keep the resort’s seasonal businesses up and running.
Throughout the winter, sponsors have been going through their typical routines of lining up participants for the J-1 visa summer work and travel program and connecting them with employers in Ocean City and all over the country. In addition, the sponsors have been lining up living arrangements for participants in host communities such as Ocean City, for example.
That work has continued in earnest, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertainties and thrown a collective wrench in the process. On March 12, the U.S. State Department put a 60-day pause on issuing J-1 visas, which would push earliest arrival date for foreign student workers into mid-May. The measure was deemed temporary and could be pushed back again as the pandemic continues to evolve.
Nonetheless, Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said the business community is proceeding as if that 60-day restriction remains intact.
“We expect students to be arriving around May 12 unless something changes,” she said. “They all have their job placements in line and are communicating with their sponsors.”
If the 60-day suspension of the program is lifted as planned for the moment, some of the thousands of summer seasonal workers still might choose to stay home out of health concerns and the uncertainties surrounding their jobs. Most of the J-1 students who travel to Ocean City work in hospitality and tourism businesses, which are essentially closed for the most part until further notice. Still others will have educational responsibilities at colleges and universities in their home country.
“Even if the program moves forward this season, there’s inevitably going to be some students who decide not to participate based on their personal choice at this time,” said Pursel. “There will also be some who won’t be able to participate, for example their university extends class schedules or exam periods, but the majority of students are excited about the opportunity to participate in the program this summer and are waiting like the rest of us.”
Pursel said the sponsorship agencies continue to work closely with the participants and are taking steps to ensure their health and safety if and when they arrive.
“Sponsorship organizations maintain close contact with the host employers they work with and would know in advance prior to the exchange visitor’s arrival if the business is not open yet,” she said. “The sponsors will have contingency plans in place to protect the health, safety and welfare of their participants, which could also include delaying the exchange visitors’ arrival in the U.S.”