Gov. Eloy S. Inos has asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reduce next year the cap on transitional Commonwealth-only workers by “only by 6 percent”—from 15,000 to just 14,100—in anticipation of a tourism growth that would need more manpower, which the U.S. worker labor pool still cannot provide at this time.
Meanwhile, Inos called on members of the Society for Human Resource Management-CNMI Chapter yesterday to “work harder” to employ more U.S. workers to reduce the islands’ reliance on foreign workers, who may have to exit the CNMI after Dec. 31, 2014, if the CW program is not extended.
The CNMI government and private sector have asked the U.S. Labor secretary for a five-year extension or up to 2019, to be able to fully prepare U.S. workers to take over most of foreign workers’ jobs.
Inos, the guest speaker at the SHRM’s monthly meeting at Pacific Islands Club, said government agencies such as the Workforce Investment Agency have also been doing their part to train and prepare U.S. workers for private sector jobs.
“We’ve got to work harder,” he told SHRM. “As SHRM folks, I want you to look for ways to prepare U.S. local citizens gradually so we can reduce reliance on CW workers.”
The governor, however, recognized the role CW permit holders or foreign workers play in the CNMI economy.
“If we don’t get [CW] extension, we’re in trouble. We need to prepare,” he said, as he laid out ongoing work and plans to prepare the U.S. worker pool.
He also called on government and private sector entities to “work together” on having more U.S. workers employed.
The U.S. law that placed CNMI immigration under federal control requires an annual reduction in the number of CW permits issued until it reaches “zero” by the end of the transition period on Dec. 31, 2014.
However, if and when the CW program is not extended beyond 2014, the CNMI loses immediate access to most of the over 12,000 foreign workers, currently with CW permits.
Inos said tourism arrivals are expected to continue to grow, additional hotel rooms will be back online, related businesses will expand, and new investors are coming in—all pointing to a need for additional workers.
At the SHRM meeting, Inos said a reduction of only about 1,000 in the current 15,000 cap on the number of CW permits will be a “comfortable” level.
In a later interview, Inos said 14,000 to 14,500 CW permits will provide “cushion” for the CNMI in anticipation of an expanded tourism economy.
“My recommendation is to bring it down to that level simply because we’ve got a lot of [ongoing] projects and we just don’t know how many local resources we would have, so we want to have cushion… We don’t want to discourage investors or developers from coming in and develop, only to find out they don’t have the labor force,” Inos said.
He said the federalization law does not allow an increase—only a decrease—in the cap every year.
Message to USCIS
The governor said USCIS Honolulu district director David Gulick had already communicated with him about the reduction in the number of CW permits allowed next year.
Press secretary Angel Demapan separately said yesterday that the governor’s recommendation was a 6-percent reduction from 15,000.
“After reviewing the CNMI’s needs for transitional workers, the governor has determined that a 6-percent reduction from the 15,000 allocation is reasonable and adequate to take care of the anticipated manpower needs for projected developments in this coming fiscal year,” Demapan told Saipan Tribune.
The governor also asked Gulick to let him know “when a final determination has been made.”
Last year, Gulick made it clear that the 15,000 cap on the number of CW permits for fiscal year 2013 gives room for some 3,000 additional CW workers to accommodate possible economic expansion.
Minimum wage, economy, other issues
The governor told SHRM members that the CNMI economy has been showing promising signs but a lot of work still needs to be done.
One of these areas is in preparing available U.S. workers for private sector jobs that are held mostly by foreign workers or CW permit holders.
Edith Deleon Guerrero, executive director of WIA, said that based on the 2010 U.S. Census, there is an 11.2 percent unemployment in the CNMI. This is higher than the national unemployment rate.
“There’s 10,711 not in the labor force based on the 2010 Census,” she told SHRM members, referring to those 16 years old and above.
The governor also said if any of the bills now pending in Congress seeking a delay in this year’s scheduled 50-cent increase in minimum wage is not passed anytime soon, the minimum wage will go up to $6.05 an hour.
There are only nine legislative calendar days before the Sept. 30 effective date of the minimum wage increase.
Inos said Congress is also faced with major issues such as the U.S. budget, deficit and sequestration.
The governor also answered questions from SHRM members, covering immigration and the economy.
When his turn came to ask, Saipan Chamber of Commerce executive director Richard Pierce told the governor that he is “doing a great job,” and the SHRM crowd applauded.
Pierce asked the governor whether the government is doing another prevailing wage survey. Inos said the government is preparing for another one.
Inos also said he will be creating an ad hoc committee composed of government and private sector entities to look deeper into available workforce data to find ways to bring more U.S. workers into the workforce.
Inos, in responding to one of the SHRM members’ questions, announced that one of the government buildings on Capital Hill will be turned into a hospitality or tourism training center to help prepare the local workforce to go into the tourism industry.