There are two major factors at play in Ocean City’s employee shortage crisis. First, this is the first summer in decades Ocean City will not have foreign student workers, who each often hold two full-time jobs. Secondly, the unemployment money is simply too good to get people back to work.
Unemployment fraud is clearly happening with the $600 weekly stipend from the federal government in addition to the lower state amount. The situation is simple. Most line cooks, dishwashers, cleaning crews and other back-end workers make more money not working than returning to their jobs. The federal stipend ends next month, but the consequences on the tourism workforce will not be able to be overcome at that point in the season.
However, the larger problem and one with lasting ramifications is the elimination of the summer work travel students (often referred to as the J-1s). While there are health and safety concerns associated with international travel as it is currently, the federal government has taken that option away, ordering the program dormant for the rest of 2020.
The order, “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the US Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak,” reads in part, “Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy. But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers … The entry of additional workers through the H-1B, H-2B, J, and L nonimmigrant visa programs, therefore, presents a significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
We, like many others in the region, signed a petition through the Alliance for International Exchange encouraging Congressman Andy Harris and Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen to support these valuable international exchange programs. It was shot down and Ocean City is left to deal with the consequences of severe employee shortages as well as a glut of seasonal housing.
The reality for this summer is the foreign workers were not going to be coming. It’s been known for months. International travel with extended stays is just too dangerous at this time. Even if their native countries’ embassies were open and operating, a self-quarantine period would have been required once here but nearly impossible with the rental crowding that occurs with these travelers.
What Ocean City officials must focus their efforts on now is the summer of 2021. The program suspension through Dec. 31 puts visas in jeopardy for execution in time for next summer. Foreign embassies will be overwhelmed with applications and a long delay will be likely even if the program resumes at the start of 2021.
This is an ongoing situation meriting the resort’s full attention, and there are daily reminders throughout Ocean City how critical the influx of foreign workers remain for the service industry.