Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said over the weekend that U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is not expected to decide on the CNMI’s request to extend by five years the transitional Commonwealth-only worker program until January next year, despite an earlier commitment from department staff that a recommendation would be finished before the end of 2013.
“That [January] is not as fast as I wanted, but it will be almost six months ahead of the deadline set by the CNRA [Consolidated Natural Resources Act],” Sablan told Saipan Tribune on Saturday.
To this day, there is still uncertainty whether some 12,000 skilled and professional foreign workers, mostly from Asian countries such as the Philippines, will be permitted to work in the CNMI after Dec. 31, 2014.
If the CW program is not extended beyond 2014, the CNMI loses immediate access to these foreign workers.
Gov. Eloy S. Inos and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce concede there’s still not enough U.S. worker pool to take over the jobs held by foreign workers by the end of 2014, and this could spell disaster to the economy, which has just been beginning to see growth.
CNMI acting Labor secretary Edith DeLeon Guerrero said one of the goals it to increase traffic of job seekers involving U.S. workers and job referrals in preparation for the end of the CW transition period.
DeLeon Guerrero chairs the governor’s task force, which recently conducted a job fair on Saipan where over 450 individuals showed up looking for work.
Sablan, meanwhile, said he wanted a decision on the requested CW program extension this year, “so that business and workers would have as much time as possible to plan.”
“And I am very confident that Labor Department officials have been working diligently on putting together their recommendation for the Secretary and getting sign off from Homeland Security and the other departments. But with just two weeks left in December, we may not get a decision until January,” the delegate said.
Sablan said he would have preferred November as the time when U.S. Labor staff would be finished with their recommendation to the secretary on the CNMI’s requested extension of the CW program.
“It’s important to understand that extending the transition period is a serious decision that the Secretary has to make and it requires serious and thorough analysis. That takes time,” he added.
Sablan reiterated that he will not prejudge the U.S. Labor secretary’s decision “but I have also always said that I have never been given any reason to think that the extension will not be approved.”
“I talk with Labor Department officials frequently to make sure that this decision-making process does not fall through the cracks. They may even be tired of hearing from me. I can tell you that we are on track. But ultimately the decision rests with Secretary Perez,” he said.
Sablan also said that the CNMI needs to prepare itself for the end of the transition period—“whether that happens in 2014 or 2016 or 2019.”
“We need to train local workers to fill the jobs in our economy. We need to keep our population numbers up so we have enough workers and consumers to keep our economy growing. We need to get out of this limbo of transition and settle these immigration questions once and for all,” he added.
In September, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security capped the number of foreign workers under the CW program in fiscal year 2014 at 14,000. The number is supposed to be down to “zero” by the end of the transition period unless extended.