Labor calls for more fed resources, info-sharing on CW transition

Department of Labor Secretary Edith DeLeon Guerrero says the CNMI’s current practice of having to file Freedom of Information Act requests so that the federal government divulges crucial labor data on the contract worker program has got to end, urging for more seamless and open communication between local and federal government on labor issues.

“That’s the only way we can plan out for our workforce development,” DeLeon Guerrero told Saipan Tribune in an interview yesterday after she spoke to the local Society of Human Resources Management members on last month’s “Section 902” talks on immigration and labor issues with the federal government, which was led by Gov. Ralph DLG Torres with DeLeon Guerrero as one of the principles on the team.

DeLeon Guerrero also suggested the $150 fee charged on employers per CW beneficiary was not enough to train a local workforce.

Her comments ties into concerns from other Capitol Hill officials who believe the federal government did not adequately provide resources or administrative procedures to effect a better transition to the end of the contract worker and this transitions’ strain on the economy.

“…That money is very insufficient,” she said, referring to the $150 fee. “Workforce training is expensive and you cannot depend on that pot of money.

“You can do a calculation. $150 times” the cap of 12,999 workers “that’s like $1.9 million. That’s insufficient to provide all the necessary trainings that we need to do.

She also reiterated the Torres administration’s desire that the federal government’s “first come, first serve” approach to approving CW permits changes so that they “prioritize those that are going for renewals.”

“We think it’s reasonable. We think it’s prudent,” she said. “Those are the ones already working with companies for so many years. You would think that would be the most ideal environment, to process those petitions through because it’s a guarantee that those employees are continuing on with the companies, rather than new ones coming in and taking their quota. That will happen. But prioritize those that are being renewed for work.”

One of Torres’ recommendations to the federal 902 panel was to have CNMI Labor involved in sorting through applications, for example, to make sure these should be filed for CW permits rather than other visa classes so that this does not affect the CW cap on workers, which was breached for the first time since the enactment of program this year.

“It is up to the federal government to look at that,” she said, “and how can we all work together between two governments and much more seamless and more responsible.”

“…For example—like the construction workers—a lot of those have also been processed under CW-1, so imagine if they are not processed under CW-1. Perhaps maybe we would have never met the cap,” DeLeon Guerrero added.

‘Have hope’

During her presentation yesterday, the Labor secretary listed some of the recommendations, or immediate “administrative fixes,” Torres’ team shared with federal counterparts to alleviate the strain on the economy and families with some 1,300 workers having to leave the CNMI because of breached cap.

These workers have to leave within 10 days of their permits expiring but DeLeon Guerrero says the short 10-day period “doesn’t happen in real life.”

“It’s important that people need to say goodbye to their families” and take care or sell their belongings. “That, for us, is essential. That’s why we are asking” the federal government “to be considerate” and give additional time to leave.

She told members a story about meeting a daughter of a contract worker with an expiring permit during a presentation on Tinian.

“She said, “I am going to get deported. I said ‘no you are not. You are born U.S. citizens. Your parents are foreign workers. But you have got to have hope. Have hope with things we are working on.’”

Among many others, the CNMI recommended affected workers be allowed to remain lawfully in the CNMI until October this year at such time when employers can petition them for the next fiscal year. The federal government would do this by creating a “cap-gap” program much like for FI visas transition to H-visas, where foreign students are allowed to continue working until they transition to the H1-B visa program.

Applied in the CW context, the U.S Department of Homeland Security could create a program using its discretion and determine which non-citizens should be allowed to, on a case-by-base basis, to apply for cap gap.

The CNMI also recommends that DHS use its authority to grant humanitarian parole or parole in place on a case-by-case basis to affected workers, whose permits expire next fiscal year to address the humanitarian crisis of separating families.

DeLeon Guerrero also responded to criticism that the CNMI does not need a contract worker program extension, for which they aim to extend the program for 10 years with an 18,000 worker cap, and that the CNMI has not done enough to train its local workforce.

“We respect the feelings of others but the reality is that the economy is growing,” she told Saipan Tribune.

“We are talking to the HANMI association, the Chamber of Commerce…these are the drivers of the economy so they know how the operations go. They are the ones providing us all the data, so we’re not making up the numbers [over 11,613 worker demand with all proposed developments on top of current workforce]. We are looking also at all the workforce data that we have and even if you were to recruit, for example, on Rota and Tinian and everyone who is looking for work, we’re talking about 11,000 plus additional workers on top of the current workforce that would help sustain the economy when all of these new developments are done and are ready to open their doors.”

“The disadvantage that we have here is for example in the states—California can access workers from the next state up, for us, now the feds begin to understand that you know we will live on an island, we are surrounded by water, to access a workforce or workers, it’s not like you can drive over the border. It doesn’t happen that way,” she said.

The Labor secretary also thanked federal counterparts for visiting the CNMI this month to understand “what’s happening to us” with the cap issues.

“You have to remember when you look back at the Covenant, we talk about self-reliance, build your economy. We are not looking for handouts as a government, as a state, as a commonwealth, we are looking to grow our economy. And in order for us to grow our economy, we also need to make sure the workers are there to support the economy, which is to supplement the local workforce. That’s really what it is.”

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Dennis B. Chan | Reporter
Dennis Chan covers education, environment, utilities, and air and seaport issues in the CNMI. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Guam. Contact him at dennis_chan@saipantribune.com.

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