Local businesses semi-prepared as program had been on hold
(June 26, 2020) It’s official: J-1 students will not be coming to work and live in Ocean City this summer.
Although many resort businesses assumed as much, President Trump put an end to any speculation to the contrary Monday, when he ordered a temporary ban on all new work visas, citing the coronavirus pandemic. This includes the J-1 cultural exchange program.
Even before the ban, J-1 students couldn’t come to Ocean City because the federal government had advised against nonessential international travel and suspended visa processing at U.S. embassies abroad.
In addition, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs had a 60-day pause on its programs that ended on May 13.
As nearly 4,000 J-1 students typically come to Ocean City every summer, this will have a heavy impact on the resort town. Nancy Schwendeman, interim executive director for the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said most businesses understood the students would probably not arrive.
“I think most … of our businesses have been working under that premise because of the uncertainty of that program,” Schwendeman said. “They have taken other measures and we are assisting them.”
She said the chamber has a virtual job fair and has reached out to schools, the tri-county and tri-state area.
“They need staff, so we’re reaching out any way possible to try to match employers with employees,” Schwendeman said. “We are actually working with the county and other organizations.”
She said some businesses have had to adjust their hours since they have fewer employees, but some have not needed to since they are operating at a limited capacity because of coronavirus health safety restrictions.
Schwendeman added that it was unfortunate that the cultural exchange program was included with the immigration order.
“We were trying to have the program pulled out of that, but I guess that has not been done,” Schwendeman said. “It was just one lump sum for a variety of immigration and covered all bases.”
Susan Jones, executive director of the Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, echoed that the J-1 program had been in jeopardy for weeks.
“From the lack of international flights, the embassies being closed, revised school calendars, to the fear of travel amongst students — I guess there were real hurdles that could not be overcome,” Jones said.
As a result, Jones said staffing has been “causing restaurants to change operating hours, hotels to not fully open all rooms and even city bus ridership and revenues to be in serious decline.”
However, she attributed part of the low staffing issues to people making more money through unemployment than their regular job.
“Rather than tying unemployment amounts to a percentage of previous job, a flat $600 a week extra was handed out and that has created the workforce challenge,” Jones said.
To help area businesses, Jones said the association had been pushing for the Open Air Job Fair that took place in Snow Hill on Wednesday.
To see Ocean City’s virtual job fair, visit oceancity.org/employment/.