Seasonal Worker Picture Continues To Evolve For Resort Area; Good News Comes From Dominican Republic With Visa Processing

Seasonal Worker Picture Continues To Evolve For Resort Area; Good News Comes From Dominican Republic With Visa Processing
A busier than normal spring season has heightened labor concerns in Ocean City. File Photo

OCEAN CITY – As seasonal workers continue to make their way into Ocean City, officials say staffing and seasonal housing shortages persist.

Employers, industry leaders and resort officials say labor shortages continue to be felt as the summer season kicks off.

While restrictions have eased on the J-1 visa summer work and travel program, Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lachelle Scarlato said less than 500 student workers have arrived in Ocean City as of Wednesday.

“There is no regulation in terms of the U.S. that is prohibiting them from coming,” she said. “The challenge that remains is that their home countries are processing visas at different rates. Some are not processing visas at all.”

Each summer, roughly 4,000 international students on J-1 work and travel visas arrive in Ocean City to fill some of the resort’s 12,000 seasonal jobs. In 2020, however, the program was essentially shut down because of travel restrictions and federal directives related to the pandemic, resulting in a labor shortage that had local businesses scaling back operations.

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While the future of the program remained in limbo for much of the fall, winter and early spring, sponsoring agencies continued to plan for the arrival of J-1 students this summer. And on March 31, a presidential proclamation suspending the entry of J-1 seasonal workers expired, easing restrictions on the exchange program.

For Ocean City’s tourism and hospitality industries, the expiration was welcome news. But questions remained on whether the U.S. Department of State could process J-1 visas in time for the summer season.

International Workers Arrive In Ocean City

Scarlato said this week information on the number of seasonal workers expected to arrive in Ocean City this summer changes daily, if not hourly. But she noted there was some good news on the labor front late last week.

“Last week the Dominican Republic all of a sudden, and in a matter of hours, started processing visas,” she said, “and at a very quick rate.”

United Work and Travel’s Anne Marie Conestabile, program director for Ocean City, said her agency has received nearly 1,000 J-1 appointments for this summer with the Dominican Republic being a major provider. Several student workers, she added, will be arriving at the resort this week.

“By now, I usually have a majority of my students here,” she said. “But because of the delays from the embassies, I’ll be receiving them through July 1.”

For many employers, the arrival of J-1 students couldn’t come soon enough, Conestabile said.

“If I bring 1,000 students, that means 2,000 jobs get filled because every student likes to work two jobs,” she said.

Susan Jones, executive director for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (HMRA), noted the impact the labor shortage has had on local businesses already. She explained this week very few HMRA members are fully staffed at pre-COVID levels.

“Revenge travel is certainly prevalent in our area as we’ve experienced a strong winter and spring season and we believe this will continue as the weather warms,” she said. “Having adequate staffing is critical to operating all shifts. Sadly, the labor shortage is going to cause reduced operating hours and potentially longer wait times, so it is important to remind customers to be kind and patient; especially with the existing staff that is working harder than ever.”

In recent weeks, various employers have shared their concerns about staffing ahead of the summer season.

At Trimper’s Rides, President Antoinette Bruno said the park had applied for 150 J-1 students this summer, but had only been allotted nine. While there are openings for full- and part-time positions with competitive wages and benefits, she said, the park is currently operating with significantly limited staff.

Last year, Trimper’s augmented its seasonal workforce through the H-2B visa program, which brings foreign nationals into the country to fill temporary, non-agricultural jobs. But Bruno’s request for additional H-2B workers this summer was recently put on hold pending further documentation.

To that end, Bruno has turned to local representatives for support. On Tuesday, for example, the Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to the U.S. Labor Department supporting her request for additional workers.

“Our town just doesn’t have the full-time population to fill all the seasonal positions we have …,” she said. “Ocean City is a great place to live and work, but we need affordable housing and we need to attract people to work in our businesses.”

Seasonal Housing Shortage Adds To Workforce Problems

Exacerbating the problem, officials say, are enhanced unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks, as well as seasonal housing shortages. Scarlato said the lack of seasonal housing in Ocean City remained the biggest challenge for seasonal workforce programs.

“Last year was almost the perfect storm,” she said. “When we didn’t receive the traditional population, a number of landlords that set aside seasonal housing … converted in many instances to Airbnb, VRBO or long-term rentals. There was significant inventory loss.”

Conestabile agreed.

“I was set to house 1,125 students for the 2021 season. However, when we saw embassies not opening, we decided to return some housing to the landlords …,” she said. “Now last week we were advised by the embassies we were getting a full load of students, so I’m actively look for 50 to 100 beds.”

Scarlato said housing accommodations and seasonal workforce numbers go hand in hand. To that end, the chamber began working with a Wisconsin construction company to develop safe, affordable housing for international and regional seasonal workers.  She said plans for a seasonal housing development were recently presented to Mayor Rick Meehan, town staff, the chamber’s executive committee and state representatives Sen. Mary Beth Carozza and Del. Wayne Hartman.

“First and foremost, we must build and be able to offer seasonal housing if H-2B workers, J-1 workers, American college students or even people from Pocomoke who want to work in Ocean City …,” she said. “It all circles back to one topic of discussion, and that’s housing.”

Efforts Ongoing To Place J-1 Students

While it remains to be seen how many J-1 students will ultimately arrive this summer, officials say they continue to work with local, state and federal partners to bring seasonal workers to Ocean City.

The chamber of commerce and sponsor agencies are also working with the local health department to facilitate the arrival of J-1 students.

“J-1 workers are included in the seasonal workforce mass vaccination clinic at the Ocean City Convention Center,” a statement from the Worcester County Health Department reads. “In addition, workers who arrive in June can be vaccinated in our weekly Tuesday clinic at the Ocean City Health Center which is open to the public. If there is a high volume arriving on a certain week, we will look at holding an additional clinic.”

Scarlato, however, noted the placement of J-1 students won’t be immediate, as they must undergo mandatory COVID testing and complete a seven-day quarantine.

“That will cause a bit of delay,” she said.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.