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Halt to international student visa program gives Boardwalk business owners pause
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Halt to international student visa program gives Boardwalk business owners pause

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The COVID-19 pandemic has derailed plans and upended lives throughout the region, the state, the nation and the world. Lost jobs, canceled plans and shortages of basic supplies that would have been unthinkable just a month ago are now part of daily life.

For Brian Hartley, a vice president at Playland Castaway Cove on the Ocean City Boardwalk, that’s meant delays in opening the amusement park and getting it staffed up for summer. He has not been able to attend job fairs or recruit at local high schools.

“We would be open right now,” he said last week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. “The weather being what it was, we would have been absolutely packed last weekend.”

Among the billions of people around the world impacted by the crisis are thousands of students planning to participate in a student visa program that allows workers to come to the United States and work temporary jobs.

Last year, more than 10,000 students came to New Jersey on visas through the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, with close to 300,000 people from 200 countries participating in the program each year. The State Department says the program allows students who will one day lead their home countries to get to know Americans and American culture and values, while introducing Americans to young people from around the world.

In March, federal officials announced a 60-day pause in all programs funded through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which came with a recommendation that all J-1 Visa programs take similar steps. The federal agency cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to avoid all unnecessary travel anywhere in the world.

In practical terms, that’s meant students already in the country have seen their visas extended, and those planning to come have had their plans put on hold.

Local businesses have come to depend on the international workers.

“Most years, they’re vitally important,” said Denise Beckson, vice president for human resources for Morey’s Piers on the Wildwood Boardwalk. “We’re in a resort area without a lot of year-round residents. The local high school graduates about 50 kids each year.”

She has about 1,500 positions to fill. About a third of the jobs at the amusement parks go to international students each year. They are especially important in the spring and fall, when high school and college kids are not available.

“We would already have students here, but obviously not this year,” she said.

Like most people working in tourism on the Jersey Cape, Hartley still hopes things will be back to normal in time for summer. At Playland, the biggest demand for international workers comes when many of the local kids head back to school in late August.

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“It’s really more about the end of the summer than anything else,” he said. “The coaches don’t want to hear that you have to work.”

Beckson, who started working at Morey’s Piers as a summer job while a teenager, said college years working on the boardwalk are no longer a rite of passage for many students, who instead seek internships that may help land a job after college.

It’s the same for the international students, who will have experience working in the United States on their resumes and a better command of practical English, she said.

Some of the students travel when not working, Hartley said, visiting New York, Washington or even Las Vegas and national parks, but many take one or even two additional jobs to try to make as much money as possible. For some students, a summer of working in the United States will bring in as much money as their parent’s annual salary.

Leonardo Soledispa, a student from Ecuador who worked in Ocean City last summer as a J-1 student, said some of his friends are delaying their trips this year. In an email, he said their families are very worried and don’t want them to travel at all.

Ecuador has been hit hard by the pandemic, with thousands of confirmed cases and hundreds of deaths in the small South American country.

Soledispa is set to graduate this year and is therefore no longer eligible to participate. But he wrote that it would be a difficult year to travel to the United States, where he imagines it would be tough to get a second job or even enough hours for his main job.

He called traveling in the coming days or months the “worst idea.”

“The situation regarding COVID-19 continues to evolve rapidly. The health, safety and welfare of exchange participants, and of the Americans with whom they interact, remains the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ highest priority,” a representative of the U.S. State Department said in an emailed response to questions. The representative declined to be identified by name under department policy.

According to Hartley, it’s going to be a challenge not only finding enough staff this year but getting the staff trained and ready in time.

“Most of our kids wouldn’t come until after Memorial Day, so we still have some wiggle room,” he said. But when the economy opens back up, he expects visitors will be ready to get out and go to the shore and will want everything up and ready when they arrive.

Morey’s has turned to online job fairs and virtual recruiting to get employees lined up for the summer.

It will depend how the current situation evolves in the meantime, said Will Morey, one of the owners of Morey’s Piers.

“Safety first,” he said. He still hopes to see students from around the world at the park. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that they won’t be here.”

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