Pandemic Clouds Seasonal Job Outlook at the Shore

Large employers lack clarity on opening dates and the availability of foreign workers.

shore businesses
For beach-area businesses, uncertainty is swirling around this season's hiring options (and much more). Photo by Jim Connolly

In an ordinary year, businesses at the Jersey Shore would be busy right now, recruiting large numbers of seasonal workers, including many from overseas.

But this is no ordinary year.

“It [could] potentially be a rough season,” says Lou Cirigliano, director of operations for Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach in Seaside Heights, as he ponders the impact of the current coronavirus state of emergency on recruitment.

Many uncertainties lie ahead for Shore businesses, including restaurants, hotels, piers and boardwalk amusements. When will they be able to open? Will social-distancing rules remain in place even as the season begins? Will they need to hire the usual number of seasonal workers—and where will those workers come from?

Typically, many seasonal businesses fill a significant number of open positions using an Exchange Visitor Program, or J-1 program, through the federal Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). For Jersey Shore businesses, the most utilized EVP is the Summer Work Travel program, under which university students from abroad travel to the United States to work during their summer break. Last year, more than 10,000 participants in the program filled positions in New Jersey, according to the U.S. State Department.

Shore businesses also hire local workers, but larger businesses find they need foreign workers, mainly under the J-1 program, to fill all the positions necessary to accommodate the influx of seasonal visitors.

The J-1 student workers prove particularly valuable for the shoulder season at the Shore. Without their aid, the beginning and tail end of the season would be understaffed, since young, local summer workers have a shorter summer break.

However, given the coronavirus pandemic, the ECA, while not suspending the J-1 program, is recommending that start dates be postponed “for 60 days after March 12, 2020,” according to a State Department official. That means no J-1 workers until about May 12—less than two weeks before the traditional Memorial Day weekend start of the Shore season.

Even without a strict suspension, current U.S. travel restrictions on foreign nationals remain a potential barrier for the J-1 workers. President Trump’s recent declaration of a temporary ban on immigration further clouds the situation.

Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach’s Cirigliano says his operations are doing their best to find employees in anticipation of reopening. (Within the J-1 program, organizations act as intermediaries to sponsor students who come to the U.S. for the season.)

“We are still working on getting international students,” he says. “We have to wait to see what the State Department allows as far as travel to the U.S. and in granting the visas, but we are still moving forward in preparation to open with J-1 students until we hear otherwise from the related governments.”

[RELATED: At the Shore, Preseason Influx of Vacation Homeowners Angers Locals]

Students in the J-1 program often find work in the U.S. through overseas job fairs. This year, though, such fairs were canceled. Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach is hiring via Skype instead; still, they are behind where they’d like to be in terms of staffing up.

That has Cirigliano worried. “We closed right as we began hiring,” he says. “The virus has affected the international student program, and many more people may be afraid to work in close proximity with others.”

Further south, businesses in the Wildwoods typically employ the most J-1 student workers. In 2018, over 1,300 members of the program were employed within the 08260 zip code. That’s more than twice any other area at the Shore.

Wildwood Mayor Pete Byron says businesses have expressed concerns about summer staffing—especially big boardwalk businesses like the Morey Organization, operators of Morey’s Piers and Water Parks, and several Wildwood-area hotels. “Their concern is that they’re not going to be able to get as many of these students,” says Byron.

The Morey Organization, understood to be one of the largest employers of J-1 workers in the state, declined to comment about their staffing plans.

Nearby, Cape May is another top destination that is reliant on J-1 workers. “They do tend to get a lot of the young kids from Ireland, England, some of the Scandinavian and Baltic countries,” says Michael Egenton, executive vice president with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association (NJBIA) acknowledged in a statement that the impact of the coronavirus on staffing remains unclear.

“The actual impacts are difficult to gauge at this point,” reads the statement. “Obviously, we know Jersey Shore businesses, particularly those on our beaches and boardwalks, depend every year on a workforce that is reliant upon the participation of college students from the J-1 program.”

On the other hand, some officials believe that a combination of factors—late openings, possible ongoing social-distancing limitations, and the chance that some businesses won’t reopen at allcould reduce the need for J-1 workers this summer.

“What we don’t know right now is when, or if, we’ll actually approach a normal summer season this year,” says the NJBIA statement.

Egenton, too, says the need for J-1 students may be reduced this year. “I don’t know if those jobs, respectfully, will even be available this season,” he says. “I have to imagine that there’s going to be several businesses there that may not be in full operation or may not even be able to open. If I was the student with a J-1 visa, I wouldn’t automatically assume that I’m coming over here this summer season. No matter what we get up and running, it’s going to look different, without a doubt.”

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