Memorial Day is still weeks away, yet in Ocean City, civic and business leaders are already fretting about the seasonal challenges ahead. Weather? They can only hope for clear skies and warm temperatures. Traffic jams on U.S. 50? That’s in the hands of out-of-towners, like the Maryland Transportation Authority, the state agency that operates the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Good fishing, calm seas for boating? Again, strictly higher powers in control. But there is a worry over which local officials would seem to have considerable say — an anticipated shortage of summer workers to staff motels and restaurants, run boardwalk concessions and keep the streets and beach safe.
Even if COVID-19 is not nearly the threat it has posed these last two years, Ocean City’s leaders are concerned that there will be a dearth of young seasonal laborers. Why? Not necessarily because of low wages in the service industry, as businesses are talking about paying record amounts (by Ocean City standards anyway) that are well above the minimum wage. Nor because of restrictions on foreign students using J-1 visas, a common source of temporary workers in many U.S. resorts. No, what employers are confronting is a difficulty in attracting the usual high school and college students to summer jobs because of seasonal housing, which is both lacking and costly.
This is not a new problem, but it appears to be a worsening one. One factor is the rising cost of higher education. There was a time when summer jobs could be treated by college students as something of a lark. As long as your temporary position covered food and lodging, it was perfectly fine to return to school in the late summer, rich in experience but not in cash. Today, however, a college education has never been more expensive. And even President Joe Biden’s recent decision to further delay student loan payments to Aug. 31 does not change the fact that there is a record $1.6 trillion in student debt. Summer jobs are today a more serious business. For many students, if they aren’t enriching their hiring potential with career-oriented internships, they need at least to be helping cover tuition payments.
That might be possible with $15- or $20-per-hour jobs, but not if those same jobs come with such high housing costs that even with shared apartments, workers are just making ends meet. And Ocean City rentals aren’t free. According to the website Zumper.com, an average Ocean City one-bedroom apartment costs $2,300 a month, a price likely boosted by the popularity of vacation rental brokers like Airbnb. That’s well beyond the means of someone earning the Maryland minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, or $500 per week before taxes. And even if workers choose less costly rentals in lower Eastern Shore towns like Snow Hill or Salisbury, transportation costs can then become an issue.
The answer is for local businesses and the town government to underwrite what is known as workforce housing — units specifically for low-wage workers that are both affordable and near their jobs. Some investments have been made. The Ocean City Development Corporation, for example, provides more than 100 beds in rental properties downtown. This spring, OCDC won approval for a new 3-story project, a $2.4 million effort (with nearly half expected to be financed through local parking fees), that will provide housing to 25 seasonal police officers that is intended to help boost recruitment.
Yet more ambitious actions are required. There have been discussions about creating a much larger-scale dormitory hall accommodating up to 1,000 workers, but so far proponents (including an out-of-state developer) have had trouble working out details. Even that, officials say, would be a fraction of what is needed, particularly given that J-1 visas require proof of housing in advance. But while it’s too late to take corrective action before this summer’s season, there’s still time to make a difference in 2023 — if Ocean City officials and private business owners can put their heads together and develop projects that can meet the growing need.
As much attention has been given what others can do for Ocean City from bending the public school calendar to delaying school start until after Labor Day to highway improvements along the U.S. 50 and Route 90 approaches to the resort, it’s time those who most directly profit from the vacation crowd took a little more responsibility for the welfare of their workers.
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