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Friday, April 18, 2014

Removal of mandatory health insurance for foreign workers gets Chamber’s nod

Shortly before a deadline to act on a pending bill or it automatically becomes law, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial received the Saipan Chamber of Commerce’s position supporting the removal of the mandatory health insurance for alien workers. The Chamber is also requesting an amendment to the CNMI’s labor law in light of federal takeover of immigration.

At the same time, Chamber president Alex Sablan said during yesterday’s monthly membership meeting at Pacific Islands Club that a letter is being prepared addressed to Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), asking for a reprieve in the 50-cent minimum wage increase in September 2013, until the economy rebounds.

The CNMI’s minimum wage is now at $5.55 an hour.

The governor, meanwhile, has yet to act on House Bill 17-147 or the measure removing the mandatory health insurance coverage for alien workers, as of yesterday afternoon, press secretary Angel Demapan confirmed.

Fitial sought the Chamber’s input on the bill, introduced by former representative Diego Benavente, when he was still a member of the 17th Legislature.

In his Feb. 1 letter to the governor, Sablan not only expressed the Chamber’s support of the bill but also sought changes to the CNMI’s employment law.

“Consequently, although the Chamber agrees and understands employers are not responsible for health care benefits under the new federal labor and immigration authority in the CNMI, the SCC believes the real issue needing address is a rewrite of the Commonwealth Employment Act of 2007,” Sablan said in his one-page letter.

HB 17-147 says that, with the minimum wage increases in the CNMI, certain benefits provided to nonresident workers should no longer be required.

Benefits previously provided to alien workers include medical insurance coverage, free housing, food, transportation, etc. because of the low minimum wage.

It also says the removal of the mandated benefits “will create fairness for all employees within the Commonwealth, nonresident and resident workers alike.”

Sablan said the Chamber believes that HB 17-147’s intent is desirable “and in fact, much of what the bill intends to amend within Title 3 of the Commonwealth Code in CNMI Labor regulations has simultaneously occurred as a result of the passage and implementation of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 with respect to foreign national employees, and the laws and regulations that govern their employment in the CNMI.”

The CNRA placed CNMI immigration under federal control.

Sablan said since the CNRA’s passage, specifically the portions addressing employment of foreign nationals through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services visas and permits, “there is a need to clearly define jurisdictional matters.”

“While USCIS has stated publicly they believe the issue of medical benefits to employees, both foreign national and U.S. hired alike, is a matter for local CNMI state concern, let alone a decision between employers and their employees, the SCC realizes the issue at hand with laws and regulations on the books that are no longer needed. And, for that reason this law attempts to remedy we support the move to amend,” Sablan said.

‘Punitive regulation’

Meanwhile, in a separate message to Chamber members, Sablan said they have yet to receive response from USCIS on their request to remove the “unintended but rather punitive regulation” referring to the requirement that nonresidents cease working if their CW or Commonwealth-only worker permit is not yet renewed on the day of the expiration of their original permit.

Sablan said the Chamber also recently asked the delegate for assistance on the matter.

The Chamber president said the effort “has also caught the support of Allen Stayman, chief legislative staff to Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the [U.S.] Senate Energy Committee.”

“We look forward to a positive result sooner than later,” the Chamber president added.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce is the largest business organization in the CNMI with some 160 members.

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