OCEAN CITY — Hoping to foster a working relationship to ease the acute labor shortage in the resort, Ocean City and state officials last week hosted an El Salvador ambassador to discuss a myriad of common issues.
Last Friday, Mayor Rick Meehan, along with State Senator Mary Beth Carozza and Delegate Wayne Hartman and other local officials hosted a visit to Ocean City from El Salvador Ambassador to the U.S. Milena Mayorga and her entourage. The days event, held in collaboration with the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, included a visit to City Hall and a working luncheon at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.
Recurring themes during the ambassador’s visit included the potential to bring seasonal workers from El Salvador and neighboring countries to Ocean City to augment the seasonal work force through the H-2B visa program. The Department of Homeland Security earlier this year increased the number of H-2B seasonal worker visas by about a third, or 22,000, to help offset a growing labor shortage in many industries, including hospitality. Near the close of Monday’s regular meeting, Meehan provided some highlights of the visit.
“We were very fortunate to have the ambassador from El Salvador here in Ocean City,” he said. “She was here to talk about two things. The first is tourism and how we can share ideas. Secondly, we talked about the H-2B program. It’s a program similar in some ways and different in others to the J-1 program.”
Earlier, during the public comment period of Monday’s meeting, a citizen raised concerns about bringing in seasonal workers from El Salvador and neighboring countries. However, Meehan said those concerns were unfounded.
“There was a comment tonight about bringing people from that country here,” he said. “That’s a program that runs through the state department. They are vetted. It’s a very serious program on both ends, in El Salvador and here in the U.S.”
U.S. employers are allowed to bring foreign nationals to this country to fill temporary, non-agricultural jobs with H-2B status. Unlike the J-1 visas, the workers are generally not students and there is not a work and travel component connected to the H-2B visas. The H-2B visa workers are seasonal and are relied upon heavily by the tourism, hospitality, landscaping, seafood and construction industries, for example.
There are 66,000 H-2B visas made available each year, allocated in half for the summer season and half for the winter season. However, because of the acute labor shortage in certain sectors of the economy, the Department of Homeland Security has made available 22,000 additional H-2B visas for the remainder the federal fiscal year that ends in September, with 6,000 reserved for El Salvador and its neighboring countries Guatemala and Honduras.
“There are about 66,000 H-2B workers in this country each year,” said Meehan on Monday. “There is an additional allocation this year of 6,000 visas because of the labor shortage from El Salvador and neighboring countries. We’re looking to see if we would have access to some of those individuals.”
Meehan said it was uncertain just how many, if any, H-2B visa holders would find their way to the Ocean City area, but last Friday’s visit by Mayorga was the start of a positive working relationship. It is unlikely any relief is coming for this season.
“That’s yet to be determined because the whole system is run as a lottery system and it is very competitive, but we felt that we built a bridge and now have an association with another country,” he said. “The ambassador was terrific. It was really a good meeting and I think in the future its something that can benefit both countries and our city. Again, it’s a very safe, well-vetted program.”