Governor’s Letter Confirms J-1 Work Program Support
OCEAN CITY — While the local grassroots campaign to stave off the possible elimination of the J-1 Summer Work and Travel (SWT) continues, the effort got a little boost this week from some sources higher up the chain.
In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would reduce the number of foreign workers in some sectors of the U.S. economy through his Buy American, Hire American initiative in the interest of protecting and preserving jobs for Americans. Left untouched in the initial executive order was the J-1 summer work and travel program that supplies the backbone of the seasonal workforce in Ocean City and similar resorts all over the country.
However, in recent weeks the administration has been considering including the J-1 SWT program in the larger executive order touching off an organized effort by the local business community to inform the administration of the importance of the program to seasonal communities such as Ocean City. The campaign heretofore has included an aggressive letter-writing campaign to state and federal representatives by the resort’s business community fostered by groups such as the Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association.
In the last week, the local effort got a boost from a couple of sources further up the legislative pecking order. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that includes language ensuring that any changes to the J-1 SWT program be properly vetted. The Senate action ensures, among other things, that the international exchange community and the U.S. businesses that rely on the program including many in Ocean City have the opportunity to publicly weigh in on any potential changes through a public, transparent process and not strictly through a mandate from the president.
On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan fired off a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing his support for the program and urging him to help stop any potential plan to eliminate it. Hogan’s letter specifically references Ocean City and its business community’s reliance on the J-1 summer workers.
“Many small businesses in Maryland rely on the SWT program to meet their seasonal labor needs,” the letter reads. “Ocean City in particular depends on these students to supplement its seasonal workforce during peak seasons. The community is also enriched by the diversity of the workforce, which adds tremendous economic and cultural value to the city. These J-1 workers not only work in our local businesses, but also shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and rent local accommodations, all of which contribute to the state’s economic growth.”
Hogan’s letter illustrates the economic importance of the SWT program from an economic standpoint, but also its cultural and diplomatic benefits.
“This program has over five decades of success in the state of Maryland, providing an educational exchange experience to college students all over the world,” the governor’s letter reads. “As you know, the SWT program offers international students the opportunity to travel to the United States for up to four months during their summer breaks to study, experience American culture, improve English language skills and work alongside Americans. The built-in work component model helps these students defray their living and travel expenses. I also appreciate that there is no expense to the taxpayers and that the SWT program regulations contain provisions to ensure the J-1 visa students do not displace American workers.”
Meanwhile, during Monday’s Tourism Committee meeting, members briefly discussed the proposed J-1 SWT program elimination as part of a larger debate. Ocean City hotelier and Tourism Committee member Michael James said the possible elimination of the J-1 program would be the focus of the October Economic Development Committee (EDC) meeting with a noted guest speaker providing updates and answering questions. James, who owns and operates several lodging establishments in Ocean City, including the Carousel Resort Hotel, said his company would struggle to fill out its seasonal workforce without the J-1 SWT workers.
“We couldn’t fill all of our jobs with American workers because there aren’t that many workers in Worcester County and the surrounding areas,” he said. “We love to hire more American and Worcester County workers, but it just doesn’t exist.”
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said during the same Tourism Committee meeting the local effort was buoyed somewhat by the actions taken by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
“We got notification that the Senate put in an amendment that should give us more time,” she said. “That seems to mean it will go through the appropriate process as it should and not just be a mandate from the president.”