OCEAN CITY — While it’s too late this summer for an influx of seasonal workers for many of the resort’s labor-starved businesses, a plan is in the works to potentially bring in employees from a different source in the future.
Throughout the summer thus far, most resort businesses are dealing with severe staff shortages for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of the traditional foreign J-1 student-workers. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded throughout the spring, it became less and less likely the J-1 student-workers that fill out the rosters for many Ocean City businesses would be coming this year.
In late June, President Donald Trump announced the suspension of several visa and immigration programs until at least the end of the year, ending any hopes of relief from a wave of foreign student-workers for this year and casting doubt on the program for next year. As a result, the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) and Worcester County Economic Development are partnering on a potential program to bring in an influx of extra summer workers from a different source in the future.
During Monday’s Tourism Commission meeting, HMRA Executive Director Susan Jones said the cooperating agencies had reached out to their counterparts in Puerto Rico about a potential summer worker exchange program in the future.
“We’ve had discussions with Puerto Rico about exchange workers,” she said. “We had a conversation with the Puerto Rican Chamber and I’ve talked to the Puerto Rico Hotel Association. We are trying to work on a future plan as they are American workers and do not need visas.”
An exchange program with Puerto Rico could be worked out for next season with the arrival of J-1 students for next summer very much unknown at this time.
“It’s more of a long-term plan,” she said. “We’re just not sure if the J-1 student-workers will be back next year.”
Indeed, it remains uncertain if the J-1 program will be restored in time for next season. Trump’s order late last month suspended the J-1 program and other immigration programs until Dec. 31 at the earliest, which could have an impact on the 2021 summer.
The foreign workers will not be able to apply at their home country embassies this entire year unless a change is made when reviewed again in 60 days. A change under the Trump administration is considered unlikely with the presidential election looming in November. New visas through the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program are generally issued in September and October.
Worcester County Economic Development Director Melanie Pursel agreed a potential arrangement with Puerto Rico was in the planning stages for next year and beyond.
“It’s a long-term effort,” she said. “Because they are American citizens, it could be easier to bring them here.”
Tourism Commission member Stephanie Meehan said there could be less of a learning curve with the Puerto Rican seasonal workers.
“If they work in the hospitality industry, it could be that they are already trained for the most part,” she said. “It’s not like the foreign college students that we get through the J-1 program that take a lot of time to get up to speed.”