ATLANTIC CITY — A federal ban on international students working as rolling chair pushers has been the main reason for a 75 percent drop in the number of licensed operators on the Boardwalk this summer.

Atlantic City — the only U.S. city where J-1 visa students pushed rolling chairs for their summer jobs — licensed 945 operators between May 1 and July 21, 2010. This year, the city issued just 213 licenses during the same time frame, the city Division of Licensing and Inspections and the U.S. State Department report.

“Last year I would sell out, and I haven’t at all this year. That’s all because of the J-1 (rule),” said Bill Boland, who owns Royal Rolling Chairs.

Complaints from foreign ambassadors, government agencies, law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security about students pushing rolling chairs and doing certain other jobs prompted a federal investigation two years ago, said John Fleming, spokesman for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with the U.S. Department of State. Safety concerns were the main factor in the ban from the department’s Summer Work Travel Program, Fleming said.

Meanwhile, students continue to inquire about jobs at Royal Rolling Chairs and competitor Ocean Rolling Chairs.

“I’ve had students come in, call and email,” Ocean Rolling Chairs owner John Taimanglo said.

Boland’s front desk clerk, Binderiya Nergui, said she still turns away students who want to supplement their primary income by pushing chairs.

“They ask why, and I really don’t know the reason,” Nergui said.

Nergui, 20, is one of 20 students here from Mongolia this summer — about 100 fewer than last year. She attributes the drop in operators to the ban.

The revenue the city gets from rental companies has remained relatively stable in recent years, because the numbers of licensed chairs do not change. A rolling chair company pays the city an annual licensing fee of $100 for each of the first 25 chairs it owns, and $75 for each additional chair. The operator of the chair pays an annual fee to the city of $75.

Ride prices also are regulated by the city. They start at $5 for the first five blocks, and increase incrementally from there. A ride for 32 blocks costs $20.

Operators work for tips. They rent the chairs — usually from Royal or Ocean, which collectively own all but 50 of the chairs in the city — for about $50 per day, although rates vary depending on the season, day of the week and whether it’s a holiday.

The fact that operators were treated as independent contractors, not paid employees, was another factor leading to the federal ban, because it created liability and legal issues, Fleming said. Atlantic City was the only place where students reported working as rolling chair operators, but the federal government placed a similar ban on J-1s operating  pedicabs, which are three-wheeled, open-air taxis pedaled by operators.

In the case of pedicabs, federal officials feared students had signed on for something that they did not fully understand. Without the insurance coverage an employer typically would provide, they risk major liability should anything happen to one of their riders. They also could incur major expenses if any the pedicabs sustained damage, a letter written in October 2009 by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchanges Stanley S. Colvin says.

Colvin’s letter was written three months after a 60-year-old woman visiting San Diego died after she fell out of a pedicab and hit her head. The operator was a 23-year-old Turkish student working there for the summer on a J-1 visa.

Taimanglo, who said his seasonal business has suffered as a result of the ban, feels the San Diego incident led the State Department to unfairly lump rolling chairs and pedicabs together.

“They’re two different entities — one is powered by a bike, the other isn’t,” he said. “I think the ban is horrible.”

Although the federal government’s new rules for J-1 students have led to far fewer chairs on the Boardwalk, city officials want to do more than cut crowding, city Licensing and Inspections Director Anthony Cox said. They also want the operators to clean up their act, meaning a neater appearance and better conduct, Cox said.

City Council took steps last fall to increase penalties for code violations and to require rolling chairs to keep moving, banning the practice of pushers standing indefinitely with their chairs against the rail of the Boardwalk. But before council could give final approval, Taimanglo sued the city and Boland, his primary competitor in the resort.

Taimanglo claimed former City Councilman John Schultz pushed to change city laws to limit the number of rolling chairs each local rental business can own, to give the longer-established Royal an edge. Schultz’s longtime partner, Gary Hill, owns a stake in Royal, the lawsuit stated.

During Schultz’s time at City Hall, laws were changed to limit the number of rolling chairs in the city to 305. One company cannot own more than 150. At that time, Royal already had 196 chairs and was exempted from the 150 limit.

Taimanglo declined to comment on the lawsuit. But Boland said Royal has no advantage; the company has just 146 chairs because a former business partner, Ted Garry, departed, taking 50 chairs with him. Ocean has 149 chairs.

City Council has yet to adopt the tougher laws regarding chairs. Officials would not say whether the lawsuit had led to the delay.

Chair pusher Sekou Kamara, in his fourth summer on the job, said he and other colleagues think the J-1 students mainly caused the issues that led to the crackdown.

“They were competing for money, but they also disrespected the rules,” said Kamara, a 30-year-old who immigrated to Philadelphia from Liberia eight years ago.

Students sometimes would poach customers and push carts too fast or without regard for others operating in the same area of the Boardwalk. And their fledgling English-language skills made it difficult for other pushers to correct them, he said.

Kamara estimated he is making 25 percent more money this summer, which he attributes almost entirely to the absence of J-1 students.

Not all chair pushers are entirely happy about their income, however. Brian Ledrich, 31, of the West Atlantic City section of Egg Harbor Township, started pushing chairs two weeks ago at the suggestion of his sister-in-law, who has done it before.

Neither shared Kamara’s experience, he said.

“It’s been really slow lately. I’m not even making $100 per day,” said Ledrick, who works as many as 16 hours at a time. “Honestly, the students aren’t missing out on anything right now.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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