Nancy Schwenden

(Nov. 13, 2020) With so many moving pieces, the J-1 work-travel visa program’s relationship to Ocean City for next summer remains unclear, including the matter of how many students will participate if the program resumes.

With a little more than 4,000 participants every summer, the J-1 international students are a vital part of Ocean City’s seasonal workforce. This past summer, those workers could not come to Ocean City because of the coronavirus pandemic and federal legislation temporarily banning visas. 

The necessity of the J-1 program was proved even further with a recent survey conducted by the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce to get a sense of how needed J-1 students are and how businesses would fare without them. 

Nancy Schwendeman, interim executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, said that 86 percent of businesses that responded to the survey said they were negatively affected by the lack of J-1 students and 83 percent said they would not meet staffing needs next summer without J-1 students. 

Businesses that responded reported losing a combined total of over $24 million. 

“Basically, the outcome was pretty much what we had thought, that J-1 students make a significant impact to our area,” Schwendeman said. 

She said the results will be given to a lobbyist and to legislators who can push for the program. 

“If we are successful at making a difference and giving our legislators the ammunition they need to support the program, to be sure the program returns next year, then this will be an enormous relief to our businesses,” Schwendeman said. 

A California court issued an injunction on the visa ban in October and the Trump administration followed with an appeal. Even if the legislative obstacles are overcome, the success of the program will depend on flights in and out of other countries, other embassies and the students’ comfort level with international travel during the pandemic.

In the meantime, the chamber and the seasonal workforce committee are preparing for another season with a limited workforce.

“We will try to the best of our ability to recapture some of the local workforce and the regional workforce,” Schwendeman said. 

The chamber gave businesses the opportunity to advertise with or work with the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce to employ workers from Puerto Rico, but that might not be an option depending on the status of the pandemic. 

Schwendeman said many of their workforce options are dependent on the pandemic. 

“Everything is going to be so covid-based because if we go backwards and . . . if people are shut down and back in their homes again, we’re not going to have a workforce anyway, no matter what we do,” Schwendeman said. “We just have to be proactive as best we can to really try to drum up the more local workforce from the universities and schools and everyone that is of age to work.” 

Elizabeth covers Worcester County issues for Ocean City Today. In 2018, she graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with a bachelor of arts. After graduation, Elizabeth spent a year with Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Wilmington, Delaware.

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