A Trump administration plan to restrict or eliminate the number of seasonal work visas issued to foreign students will be "devastating" to businesses at the Jersey Shore, employers said, and "drastically and negatively impact" the Garden State's $44.1 billion tourism industry, according to a state trade association.
The president campaigned on eliminating the J-1 visa program, which currently admits more than 100,000 students into the U.S. to work seasonal jobs at resorts and amusement parks. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal published Sunday, the State Department is weighing "major reductions" to the popular program.
More than 5,300 J-1 visa students typically work for 10 weeks in New Jersey, then take a month to travel the country.
Employers in Cape May County this year hired 2,846 who come from as far away as Thailand, Romania, Ukraine, and Ireland to cook and wait tables at Shore restaurants and operate rides at amusement parks such as Morey's Pier in Wildwood. Those student workers who made minimum wage or slightly better pumped more than $1.4 million into the local economy, according to the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
The State Department referred all questions about potential changes to the J-1 visa program to the White House. The White House press office did not immediately return calls. According to reports, Trump's own properties make use of the program.
"I can say this without being alarmist: cuts would be devastating to the hospitality industry in the state," said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the N.J. Restaurant and Hospitality Association. "From Morey's Pier to Great Adventure to Crystal Springs, every seasonal business uses this visa program extensively."
If visas are curtailed, many businesses will be forced to reduce hours, face shutdowns, and "ultimately lay off year-round American employees due to lost revenues," Halvorsen wrote in an Aug. 29 letter imploring Gov. Christie to intervene on behalf of the program.
The Keystone State also depends on the J-1 visa program, "especially in Hershey and the Poconos," said John Longstreet, the president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
"There's a huge labor shortage that's partially due to demographics but also because the hospitality industry is one of the fastest growing in the nation," Longstreet said. "The number one concern of my members is their inability to get workers."
At Morey's Pier on the Wildwood Boardwalk, more than a third of its 2017 workforce was hired through the J-1 program.
"It's a myth that the program takes jobs from Americans. It's just not true," said Denise Beckson, director of human resources for the amusement park. "We have about 1,500 positions we fill every summer. This year, we had 200 jobs that were never filled."
The company holds extensive job fairs to recruit locals, but there are not enough who want to work seasonally. Morey's Pier hired 82 percent of all the Americans who applied. The remaining 18 percent, Beckson said, were too young to fill jobs as life guards or serve alcohol. They were encouraged to reapply when they turn 18.
The closest high school graduated 52 seniors this year, Beckson said.
"We would have taken them all," Beckson said. "And their parents, too."