President Biden let the proclamation banning the critical J-1 visa program participants expire this week. It’s good news, but only one piece to a complicated puzzle on the resort’s labor front.
Time will tell whether it’s too late to have a major impact on this summer’s tourism industry. About 4,000 foreign workers typically come to Ocean City each summer filling key positions in the hospitality industry. These employees are valued tremendously throughout the summer but particularly in late August and September when high school and college students return to school. Another difficult piece of the employment puzzle is the fact many Americans can get paid more for not working and collecting unemployment currently than taking low-level trade jobs in resort businesses.
Several employers this week said privately they expect about one-third of the typical foreign workforce to be here this summer. It will be a help and better than last summer when Ocean City did not have any help from foreign J-1 visa holders. However, the labor force is going to again be a major concern this summer. It should not be as impossible of a scenario for businesses than last year, but it’s going to a persistent problem. In what was unheard of previously, it was common last summer to see businesses closing a day or two a week in the peak season to give their employees a break. The additional foreign workers who do make it here this summer may prevent that for some businesses.
One employer who returned last week from eastern Europe said embassies in two of the five countries he visited for employee searches were open and ready to begin processing J-1 visa applications. There were no plans for the other three countries to open their embassies anytime soon as COVID-19 spikes were taking place.
A recent conversation I had with a manager at the Hyatt in Cambridge last week told a similar story. The manager said last summer the resort instituted its own capacity restrictions on lodging to ensure the experience offered to guests met the brand’s expectations. Without foreign workers – estimated at half of the resort’s summer workforce – there was little else that could be done outside of not selling as many rooms. When asked about this summer, she painted a grim picture. She said the hotel traditionally attracted the foreign workers who arrived too late to secure jobs at the beach. If the supply of jobs in Ocean City exceeds the workforce, as expected, she expects another summer of self-imposed restrictions.
Throughout the pandemic and all the associated rule changes, consistency has been a struggle for decision makers. This lack of congruency has resulted in confusion among the general public and frustration for those who are responsible to adapting and pivoting amid the changing set of rules.
For example, it was significant news last week when the Maryland State Department of Education agreed to adopt the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control about three feet of spacing (rather than six feet) being appropriate for students in school. The updated guidelines say it’s safe for students to be situated in classrooms at three feet of distance so long as they are masked, but adults should keep on maintaining six feet of distance whether they are vaccinated or not.
On the surface, this is welcome news for local schools, as it helps schools get more kids in their classrooms, but it also comes with problems because of expectations. The three-foot rule does not apply to lunch when kids are without masks. Six-foot distancing still applies whenever masking is not possible. More importantly, the three-foot rule does not change close contact guidance. For example, if a positive fifth grader is identified, any child found to be within six feet of him or her for more than 15 cumulative minutes in an hour will still need to quarantine for two weeks. The obvious question is: If it’s safe for kids to be distanced just three feet, why does six feet remain the threshold when determining who needs to quarantine if near a positive individual? It’s either safe (meaning non-quarantinable) or it’s not.
Another example would be last month’s lifting of 50% capacity restrictions on restaurants that came with the continual requirement to socially distance tables by six feet and the continued prohibition of standing at bars. This only helped the large restaurants with the ability to space out guests. This change was more symbolic than anything. I sense it gave many restaurants the confidence to go ahead and push the limits further. The six-foot distance seems to be more of a goal now than a requirement. I can understand blurring the lines a bit because the state’s capacity change was confusing.
Another example involves vaccinated individuals. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose. Once fully vaccinated, individuals can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated folks without wearing a mask; can gather inside with unvaccinated people without wearing a mask; and cannot be close contact quarantined if around a positive individual unless showing symptoms. However, fully vaccinated individuals must, according to the CDC, still quarantine seven days and/or get tested after traveling.
Over time hopefully the logic piece will catch up with the changing rules and regulations.