NJ shore operations could be limited again due to less foreign help
Once again in the face of a global pandemic, seaside venues in New Jersey aren't sure if they can count on help from foreign college students who typically fill their ranks each year as part of a summer work travel program.
Shore destinations are hoping that COVID-related restrictions on the federal level are lifted in time to get foreign students through the special visa process and over to New Jersey so they can help businesses cater to locals and tourists.
As of late March, the traditional process remains in limbo; local groups and businesses are continuously lobbying officials to make a change.
"We're very concerned about getting our J-1 exchange students this summer due to visa processing delays at the embassies and consulates in foreign countries," said Denise Beckson, vice president of human resources for Morey's Piers in Wildwood. "We're seeing delays that would cause students really not to get here in time to participate in the program."
Morey's Piers amusements typically field workers from dozens of countries — some would ideally arrive by May 1. Typically, Morey's Piers hires 1,500 seasonal employees overall, but could only get to 700 in 2020 when services related to exchange visitor programs were suspended due to the public health threat. As a result, Morey's Piers only opened one of its two water parks for the summer, and kept one of three ride piers closed all summer.
"We'd like to open everything," Beckson said of summer 2021. "Provided we can get all of our J-1 students and have good local hiring, that's our plan."
Beckson said summer work travel visas need to be prioritized so shore sites can experience the economic recovery they're counting on following a rough 2020.
According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 5,200 non-immigrant-visa holders visited New Jersey for purposes of "summer work travel" in 2019.
"That's something to be proud of, as our New Jersey culture is shared by these students when they return to their home countries, families and universities," said Vicki Clark, president of the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association.
Clark said the program represents a small but critical part of the seasonal tourism workforce — when main attractions are forced to adjust hours due to staffing issues, surrounding businesses are affected as well.
The loss in 2020 of J-1 students at Jenkinson's Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach led to reduced hours at its ride park. J-1 participants make up about 10% of Jenk's staff.
"They are most heavily relied upon during our 'shoulder seasons' while the American workers are in school," said Toby Wolf with Jenk's. "We are hoping to recruit enough help this year to go back to our regular business hours."
Jenkinson's held an outdoor job fair on Saturday and Sunday for many open positions. Wolf said another reason positions were hard to fill last year was the fact that out-of-work individuals were receiving extra stimulus money through unemployment benefits.
Maria Mastoris Saltzman, marketing director for Casino Pier & Breakwater Beach in Seaside Heights, said while it's uncertain what will happen with J-1 foreign workers in 2021, operations were not affected by the loss of those workers in 2020.
"We have been hiring since February 1 and we are on a good track for our summer season. We are always looking for new faces to join our team, high school and college students from the U.S. can always apply on our website," she said.