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National Restaurant Association - State exec: fair guest worker system needed

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State exec: fair guest worker system needed

Proposed immigration legislation could affect thousands of restaurant and hospitality companies that rely on the J-1 visa program to add employees during peak seasons.

The J-1 visa program is a work-travel program. Students and professionals from other countries work two or three months, travel a month and then go home.

“This program is very important to my members and tourism in New Jersey,” says Marilou Halvorson, president, New Jersey Restaurant Association. “We employ so many high school and college students and teachers who go back at end of August. The J-1 program allows our businesses to stay open during the shoulder season.”

For many beach-town operations, such as those along the New Jersey Shore, about 80 percent of their workforce is seasonal, Halvorson says. Her state is among those expected to create the most eating- and drinking-place jobs this summer, about 21,900 positions. The National Restaurant Association projected restaurants nationwide would create about 448,000 jobs this summer.

For many operations, the “summer season” extends into spring and fall, says Halvorson, who led marketing and operations for two entertainment complexes before become the NJRA’s chief executive.

Combined, the two properties -- Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach and Casino Pier in Seaside Heights – employed 1,700 people. The full- and part-time employees ranged from teenagers to senior citizens.

The most challenging times to find workers are the “shoulder seasons,” or Easter through Memorial Day and Labor Day through mid-October, Halvorson says. During those times, her company relied on many foreign workers employed under the J-1 visa program.

The Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights complexes employed doctors, biologists, attorneys and other professionals in hospitality positions, she says.

“It’s not as though they stay here,” she says. “They’re in college or have a job; they just want to see the U.S.”

The J-1 program allows businesses to remain open longer and hire full-time Americans, as well as provide better customer service, Halvorson says. Some operations are open 18 hours a day in the summer, and there’s a huge demand for people to work over several shifts.  Minors can only work limited hours. As the economy improves, it becomes increasingly difficult to find enough Americans who want to work those particular tasks, Halvorson says.

“This allows employers to have more flexibility to stay open longer and have more people on staff in a customer-oriented industry,” she says.

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