OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Cass Sciubba always dreamed of having a summer job on the boardwalk.
This year, at 62, she has finally gotten her wish, by working at an Ocean City shop called Beach Bear Essentials, selling sunblock, postcards and other sundries.
"I love it. It's as much fun as I always thought it would be," said Sciubba, who previously worked in retail on the mainland.
She might not be delighting in the ocean breeze and her chats with vacationers if not for necessity, however.
"I'd rather be enjoying my retirement," Sciubba confessed. "But everything is so expensive, I really need the money. That's really why I took this job."
Sciubba is among a new group of cash-strapped older adults and teenagers happy to fill Jersey Shore jobs that, until recently, were held by foreign workers.
Employers had worried that a glitch in issuing seasonal foreign-worker visas this year would lead to a crippling labor shortage. Instead, the rising cost of living - especially gas prices - has driven locals to seek positions they ordinarily wouldn't have considered, said Michele Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
While workers with exotic accents can still be found, Gillian estimates that last summer's Shore-wide army of roughly 7,000 foreign employees is down 30 percent.
Applications from residents began to increase about five years ago when the job market softened, Gillian said, but the trend took off this summer.
"Local kids and older, retired people [are] filling in the ranks, and I think it's clearly related to the economy," she said. "People need extra money."
On the Wildwood boardwalk, John Sherma, 66, of Millville, couldn't agree more. His retirement fund all but dried up, the former aviation engineer is flipping burgers and mixing milkshakes to make ends meet.
"Between corporate greed and the cost of everything, there isn't much money left at the end of the month," Sherma said.
"We moved into my in-laws' summer home in North Wildwood, and I'm working here. My wife, who's 62, got a job working the reception desk at a motel. It's a hell of a retirement."
During 19 summers at his Ocean City boardwalk shop, Shirt Shack owner Brent Hanley has seen the ebb and flow of seasonal help.
When he started in business, most of his three dozen or so employees were students. As the years passed, a booming economy and other summer opportunities for young people, including unpaid internships and study abroad, led many to turn up their noses at the odd hours and low wages of boardwalk jobs in gift shops, amusement piers and pizza joints.
Hanley and others filled out their staffs with young people from places like Ireland and Croatia who were eager for adventure and a chance to earn American dollars.
By 2005, about 7,500 foreigners were working legally at an estimated 700 Jersey Shore businesses.
This year, Congress effectively cut by half the country's annual quota of 66,000 H-2B visas by failing to renew a proviso that let workers extend their six-month visas for another six months. The visas, which differ from those of agricultural workers, ensure that foreigners pay taxes and contribute to Social Security and return home at the end of the season.
In the spring, Shore employers feared that the international labor shortfall would hurt the state's $37 billion tourism industry. But Hanley said he was in good shape, with a staff divided equally among foreigners, U.S. students and adults.
Morey's Piers, which for years has recruited overseas to fill jobs U.S. applicants shunned, belongs to Save Our Small Business, a Bethesda, Md., coalition that has lobbied lawmakers for more visas. Efforts to solve the problem have led to a tug-of-war between congressional factions, including the Hispanic caucus, which has said it will not overhaul immigration policy in piecemeal fashion.
"We would very much like to see the H-2B issues resolved, but for this year we were . . . focused on being able to provide the level of service we needed," said Geoff Rogers, vice president of operations and risk management at the Wildwood amusement park.
Morey's summer payroll is more than 1,500, making it one of largest non-casino employers at the Shore, Rogers said. Eight hundred workers are typically foreign students, but the H-2B change has decreased that number by as much as a third this year, he said.
Morey's prepared by attending job fairs and recruiting foreign students on two-year J-1 visas. Like others at the Shore, Rogers said, Morey's had a record number of local adult applicants, and "we were able to draw from these other sources to fill in the gaps."
In Ocean City, Ed Sonneborn, 51, has operated the Run-Away Train ride and other amusements at Gillian's Wonderland Pier for four summers. Sonneborn, of Ocean City, said he had noticed more locals taking jobs on the boardwalk every year.
"Because of the economy, people need money. And when gas is $4 a gallon, they go to the closest place they can to take a job," Sonneborn said. "For people around here, that's the boardwalk."
Renee Minichino, 17, of Upper Township, agreed.
"None of my friends wanted to go out to the mall [in Hamilton Township] to get jobs or do internships this year because of the gas prices," said Minichino, who operates a photo booth at Gillian's. "We wanted to stay as close to home as possible and make money."
She said the crunch had forced her set to alter their habits in other ways, including carpooling and working longer shifts.
While no one likes the economic squeeze, some see a silver lining.
"I think for the first time this generation of young people has really had to pull together and think about money, think about the future," said Gillian, of the chamber of commerce. "And that's brought them to the boardwalk to work alongside foreign kids and older people. I think that kind of experience is priceless."