Whether or not the Jersey Shore is open for business in any capacity this summer, the typical hiring process has been turned upside down by COVID-19 for seasonal shops, eateries and attractions.

On top of dealing with canceled interviews and job fairs, coastal businesses are wondering if they can count at all on the influx of foreign college students who fill their ranks each year as part of a summer work travel program.

"We approved 45 — only four of them were able to get their visas before COVID shut down their embassies," said Lori Lane, general manager of Two Mile Landing in Wildwood Crest.

Lane fears the property, which hosts two eateries, may only be able to open one if the business can't guarantee more students through the J-1 Visa program. The restaurants typically use J-1 students for ancillary jobs that may not require strong knowledge of the English language, Lane said.

"The issue is we just don't get enough American students to fill all those jobs," she said.

According to the U.S. Department of State, about 4,700 of these non-immigrant-visa holders visited New Jersey for purposes of "summer work travel" in 2018.

A pause of international exchange programs was initiated in mid-March by the Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, to block travel to and from countries with travel alerts related to the novel coronavirus. The suspension does not apply to the J-1 Visa exchange visitor programs because they're run by private sector partners, but the Bureau has strongly recommended that J-1 sponsors follow suit with the rules in place for ECA-funded programs.

Due to travel restrictions, visa holdups and students' concerns over COVID-19, Seaside Heights Mayor Tony Vaz expects borough businesses will get just "some J-1 participants" for summer 2020.

"I don't think we'll have the magical numbers that we usually get," he said.

Maria Mastoris Saltzman, marketing director for Casino Pier and Breakwater Beach in Seaside Heights, said the properties are a little behind on hiring right now, and the situation could be made even worse if the international students they've contracted to work can't be utilized.

"With many Americans out of work, we hope that many will start applying to us, so we can be fully staffed once we are able to open," she said.

Because business operations may be limited at the shore, in order to promote social distancing, Michael Egenton, vice president of government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said it's uncertain whether the true need for J-1 students will be as expansive as usual in summer 2020.

If the issue should create an employment gap, he added, those who've newly lost their jobs due to the health crisis may be able to fill some holes.

"Maybe you'll have other folks in the job market looking for seasonal opportunities along the Jersey Shore," Egenton said.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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