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Russia's Ukraine invasion expected to have 'huge impact' Jersey Shore's economy

From spiking oil and wheat prices to a potential shortage of neon gas needed for already-scarce semiconductors, the war in Ukraine is taking a toll on the global economy. And that includes the small beach towns that make up New Jersey’s shore region.

Popular destinations ranging from Seaside Heights, made famous by “The Jersey Shore,” to Wildwood rely on foreign workers during the crucial summer months to run the boardwalk stands and amusements that generate much of the shore area’s yearly revenue.

But a dearth of workers from Ukraine and Russia, who often come to the U.S. via the State Department’s J-1 visa summer work travel program, could keep businesses from opening during the summer season just as they attempt to recover from the pandemic.

“It is going to have a huge impact on us because the J-1 visa student program that we have in the Wildwoods is very active,” explained Tracey DeFault, executive director of The Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce.

“A lot of employees participate in that program and utilize the J-1 students coming over, and Ukraine is a very popular location that we would have students come from.”

WILDWOOD, NEW JERSEY - MAY 27: A help wanted sign is displayed outside of a business near the boardwalk days before the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, in the shore community of Wildwood on May 27, 2021 in Wildwood, New Jersey. Wildwood, like many beach communities throughout the United States, is looking for a successful and busy summer season after staying mostly closed or partially open last summer due to Covid-19 restrictions. Many resort community retail businesses are also suffering from a shortage of labor as some workers are choosing to stay home and others have changed career paths.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
WILDWOOD, NEW JERSEY - MAY 27: A help wanted sign is displayed outside of a business near the boardwalk days before the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, in the shore community of Wildwood on May 27, 2021 in Wildwood, New Jersey (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

J-1 visas are a necessity for vacation spots across the U.S. in need of temporary employees who can work for weeks or months at a time. But the war could make it difficult for workers from Eastern Europe to reach the States. Add that to the already tight labor market, and it could spell trouble for Jersey’s shore towns and other spots that rely on seasonal labor.

Workers cut off from the U.S.

Businesses that make up the carnival game stalls, mini golf courses, and ice cream spots along the shore rely on student workers who enter the U.S. through the State Department’s J-1 visa program.

Shore-based business leaders repeatedly said the horrors of the war in Ukraine far outweigh the impacts on the local economy on the shore. Still, they say local shops may face worker shortages that could hurt business this summer.

It’s not just workers from Ukraine. According to Denise Beckson, VP of human resources at Morey’s Piers, which operates a number of amusement piers and water parks, Russia provided a large number of J-1 visa workers in 2019.

“Russia is in the top 10 sending countries traditionally having high participation in the summer work travel program,” Beckson explained.

WILDWOOD, NEW JERSEY - MAY 27: People walk along the boardwalk days before the Memorial Day weekend, the un-official start of summer, on the Jersey shore on May 27, 2021 in Wildwood, New Jersey. Wildwood, like many beach communities throughout the United States, is looking for a successful and busy summer season after staying mostly closed or partially open last summer due to Covid-19 restrictions. Many resort community retail businesses are also suffering from a shortage of labor as some workers are choosing to stay home and others have changed career paths.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
WILDWOOD, NEW JERSEY - MAY 27: People walk along the boardwalk days before the Memorial Day weekend, the un-official start of summer, on the Jersey shore on May 27, 2021 in Wildwood, New Jersey. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Russia, however, cut off its J-1 visa program with the U.S. in 2021 as relations between the two nations soured. As a result, Russian citizens seeking to travel to the U.S. for summer work have to go through U.S. consulates in neighboring countries to apply for visas.

Of course, workers through the J-1 visa program don’t only go to the Jersey Shore. It’s a nationwide program that places foreign students in any number of jobs throughout the U.S. What’s more, those workers come from regions outside of Ukraine and Russia, ranging from Turkey and Mexico to Thailand and Romania.

The countries that send a lot of workers can vary from year to year. Nations can send a large number of student workers one year and see that amount drop the next.

“I've been around the shore awhile, and it's been interesting to see the way that maybe there'll be five years during which most of the employees seem to come from one country and then all of a sudden they seem to be coming predominantly from another country,” said Michael Redpath, executive director of the Seaside Heights Business Improvement District.

“My understanding was that in the last two or three years, there had been an uptick in folks from Ukraine,” Redpath explained. “But that doesn't mean that that would have been the case this year.”

A region still recovering from COVID

The news of a potential worker shortfall comes as Jersey Shore businesses hope to get back to full strength following two years of being hamstrung by the pandemic.

Global travel restrictions prevented J-1 workers from coming to the U.S., forcing some businesses to either partially open or remain closed during the summer months.

“It's been a challenging two years to put it mildly,” Beckson said. “You know, it's funny, 2020 was really difficult. We only opened our facilities partially, and I remember in 2021 talking to some of my colleagues and folks saying I want my 2020 problems, because 2021 was difficult in a different way.”

And with older workers leaving the workforce throughout the pandemic, finding employees became even more difficult for shore area businesses.

“Staffing everywhere is a serious problem,” DuFault said. “And it's year-round, part-time, summer, seasonal, everybody. It's something that really everyone's struggling with right now across the board, not just a seasonal town.”

And now, with the summer season just months away, the same towns may be forced to stretch their already thin workforces further to compensate for the lack of employees from Ukraine and Russia.

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