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Foreign bus driver program could be viable for resort

(Jan. 16, 2015) Although the idea is nowhere near finalized, city government plans to pursue the possibility of bringing in foreign workers to solve the city’s bus staffing problem.

During last week’s meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan told the Transportation Commission that a recent conference with visa agency representatives had painted the idea of foreign workers as a viable option.

“We were all satisfied that it could be a program that would work for us,” Meehan said. “I would certainly recommend that we continue to investigate this and keep this option open.”

Meehan and a number of city staffers had met with representatives from United Work and Travel, the largest of several agencies that sponsor foreign employees working in Ocean City during the summer season.

Most foreign employees in Ocean City are in the country under a J-1 visa, which is a designated travel and work-experience program for foreign college students. The program is particularly popular in Eastern Europe, as is evident during the summer months.

However, potential foreign bus drivers would be a different case, most likely arriving under H2B visas. The U.S. State Department designates H2B visas for “temporary, non-agricultural workers” who are allowed into the country for a set period of time to perform a specific task.

“It’s not for the students, like we usually have,” Meehan said. “It’s for other members of the workforce. [The employees] come over here with the objective of making the money and doing the work.”

To obtain permission for H2B workers from the U.S. Department of Labor, an employer must demonstrate that qualified American employees are not available at the time and location that the employer needs them. The employer must also show that employment of H2B workers will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of similar American employees.

To this point, the Labor Department may also set the wage that the employees are to be paid for a specific job.

“My understanding is that there’s a process the Department of Labor follows to establish what a fair wage is … followed by a process whereby the employer has to establish need,” said Deputy Public Works Director Jim Parsons.

The city has already begun compiling the needed information, Transportation Superintendent George Thornes said, in order to see how many workers the Department of Labor would authorize for employment here and at what wage.

Starting pay for city bus drivers is $14 per hour, the same rate as seasonal police officers and Beach Patrol guards.

If Ocean City were to decide to go through with the program, it would be able to use United Work and Travel’s recruitment network. The company would even set up interviews with possible employees via Internet video-chat, Meehan said.

The city’s major concern with the proposal would be the ability to get foreign drivers back to Ocean City for any possible litigation if one were to get into an accident. Provisions do exist to address such legal issues, Meehan said.

The desire to use foreign workers as bus drivers stems from the city’s ongoing difficulty in finding local drivers. The situation reached a critical point last summer. City bus data indicated that the number of deployments – meaning one bus for an eight-hour shift – dropped nearly 20 percent for this past summer over the summer of 2013, even though ridership was down less than seven percent.

“Our concern here is a lack of buses on the road, which is directly attributable to a lack of drivers,” Meehan said. “If we fix that, we can take our bus system to the next level.”

The average age of the city’s bus drivers is between 62 and 63. Although 132 drivers worked over the summer, only 76 worked the majority of the season, with a precipitous drop in man-hours. This was attributed to many older drivers not taking shifts during June, when high school graduates flood the resort, and slowing down their schedules in the weeks that follow.

The city is attempting to begin recruiting a younger generation of drivers, who might be interested in more strenuous schedules and more resilient to rowdy teens.

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