Ocean City Today

OC Chamber: J1 program at risk

Seasonal worker bill could end student work/travel initiative throughout state
Feb 22, 2018
Source: File Photo

(Feb. 23, 2018) First, it was the General Assembly’s approval of the paid sick leave law this year that walloped Ocean City’s seasonal businesses. Now, it’s a proposed measure that could gut the J-1 Visa Summer Work and Travel program on which many resort operations depend to fulfill their summer worker needs.

Although the regulatory focus of SB526 appears to be on seasonal farm labor, the legislation sponsored by Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery County) could kill the student work/travel program, said Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel.

“We’re opposing the bill as it stands now,” said Pursel, who testified against the bill at a Tuesday Finance Committee hearing in Annapolis.

“If these provisions go into effect, the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program will cease to exist in Maryland. This actually impacts the entire state,” she said.

Ocean City, however, would feel the brunt of the bill, with more than 5,000 student work/travel participants in the resort last year.

The critical aspect of the bill, Pursel said, is that it would prohibit sponsoring agencies from charging participants fees, which are used to cover staffing and program infrastructure requirements established by the U.S. Department of State.

The sponsoring agencies also are responsible for workers’ health concerns and any legal matters.

The bill, which is also sponsored by Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery) and Sen. James Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s-Anne Arundel), would redefine “cultural exchange” as “employment” and J-1 “exchange visitors” as “workers” and program sponsors as “foreign labor contractors.”

“The J-1 program is heavily regulated by the Department of State,” Pursel said. “Sponsoring agencies are required to reapply for designation every two years.”

Even so, the legislation would increase requirements for oversight by the Maryland Commission of Labor and Industry.

“I think it was not intended to interrupt summer work travel,” she said.

As part of her Senate testimony, Pursel presented survey data highlighting the economic impact of J-1 summer exchange workers.

“We are really trying to educate the committee on the program,” she said. “We want to appeal to the cultural experience for the worker and our guests.”

The annual economic impact statewide is approximately $31.8 million from J-1 participants, Pursel said, with the bulk of funds returning to the local economy through rent, food, entertainment and retail purchases.

“We’re hoping to see an amendment removing the J-1 program,” she said. “Maryland business, as well as our state and local economy, would suffer.”

If SB526 receives a favorable report from the Senate Finance Committee, a corresponding bill in the House of Delegates (HB1493) is set for a March 13 hearing in the Economic Matters Committee.

Lee offered comparable legislation during last year’s session of the legislature, but it was withdrawn after receiving an unfavorable report from the Economic Matters Committee.

The current legislation is the second scare resort businesses have experienced in the past several months concerning the continuation of the J1 program.

Last summer, a White House interagency group pushed to eliminate the program altogether in what it said was an effort to protect American jobs.

Congress subsequently expressed its support of the program.

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