Even restaurant food and pastries that the community has come to love may not taste the same again, and every other business from major hotels to lowly barber shops and manpower agencies supplying caregivers said they will either downsize or shut down when the transitional program that allows the CNMI access to some 10,000 skilled and professional foreign workers comes to an end on Dec. 31, 2014.
As of last night, there’s no decision yet from U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez whether to grant a five-year extension of the Commonwealth-only worker, or CW, program.
“It will be a disaster,” Herman’s Modern Bakery general manager Juan “Pan” T. Guerrero told Saipan Tribune yesterday. “We’ve always maintained a certain quality of baking. If we lose our valued foreign workers, even the delicious buns we make for McDonald’s could taste different.”
The three head chefs at J’s Restaurants, also a food institution in the CNMI like Herman’s Modern Bakery, are all holders of CW permits that are valid only until Dec. 31, unless the program is extended.
“We would have to downsize, instead of a 24-hour operation. It would have a tremendous impact on us. J’s Restaurant will still be open but it’s not going to be the same,” Juan S. Tenorio, president of Jet Holdings, which operates the two J’s Restaurant branches, separately said.
Diamond Auto Parts, one of the major retailers of automotive parts on island, is also sure to take a hit if it loses access to its long-term foreign workers whom the business has relied on for 21 years.
“Maybe the business won’t close but sales could further weaken. It’s already been getting weak, it’s going to get worse,” said general manager Jun Lambon.
The 426-room Hafa Adai Beach Hotel in Garapan, one of the major hotels in the CNMI, sees a “difficult” future ahead if it loses access to about 40 percent of its employees if the CW program ends in 2014.
“We are not going to shut down our operations but it will be difficult for us. We continue to discuss plans to maintain our operations,” said Hafa Adai Beach Hotel front office manager Takatoshi Namima, on behalf of general manager Akira Takaoka.
The Saipan Chamber of Commerce, the largest business organization in the CNMI, as well as the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands, has spoken of economic disaster should the tourism-based economy loses foreign workers that make up majority of private sector personnel for their specialized skills and level of expertise in their field, be it engineering, architecture, nursing, teaching, accounting, journalism, carpentry, farming, fishing, plumbing, or care-giving.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said last night that while the U.S. Labor secretary does not have to issue a decision until the end of June 2014, he—like many others throughout the community—wants this decision “sooner rather than later.”
“What I can say is that the Secretary has to make a complex and difficult decision. I think an extension is best for our economy. But Department of Labor officials are also hearing other voices in the Marianas saying they want all foreign workers to be gone by the end of this year even if that is detrimental to our economy and that has negative impact on local government revenues,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
He said his office continues to work with officials of the U.S. Department of Labor on the CW program.
Sablan and Gov. Eloy S. Inos asked for a five-year extension of the CW program, while at the same time working to ensure more U.S. workers get training to be able to eventually fill most private sector positions.
“The decision to extend or to not extend the transition period is for Secretary Perez to make. And we will continue to urge him to make it sooner rather than later,” the delegate added.
A beauty and barbershop in Garapan said yesterday they are more than likely to shut down their business if they lose their all-around beauticians, all of whom are foreign workers.
Herman’s Modern Bakery’s Guerrero said that about 60 of their estimated 100 employees are foreign workers.
He said they are considering applying for H visas for at least their highly valuable bakers to ensure there is no disruption of production if the CW program expires this year, and to maintain the high-quality products Herman’s Modern Bakery has been known for.
Guerrero said their company has long been training U.S. workers or residents, including Saipan Southern High School students, hoping that they too will become valuable company assets later on.
“We’ve done so many training of U.S. workers but the problem is, they never complete the training. It’s been a struggle for us to train and maintain these workers. At one time, we tried to replace 30 with local workers. In one month, only one remained. We lost 10 locals in one week alone. They voluntarily decided to not be employed, not because there’s no job available to them,” Guerrero added.
Herman’s Modern Bakery has been supplying products to DFS Galleria and McDonald’s. Should the bakery loses its expert bakers, for example, Guerrero said the taste and quality may never be the same.
“Baking is a hard work and requires creativity and expertise. In baking, it’s either you have it or you don’t,” he added.
Guerrero said both the Public School System and Northern Marianas College “have to step up” in preparing students to become employable individuals.
“Employers pay $150 for every foreign worker we hire. We don’t see the results of that yet,” he added.
While J’s Restaurant could survive, albeit with difficulty, Jet Holdings’ Tenorio said he is most worried about hotels’ operations.
“I sympathize with hotels who would have difficulty replacing foreign workers that they have come to rely on. And I believe the 5,000 unemployed residents that the CNMI Labor secretary has been saying is too high. She’s probably counting the retirees, too,” Tenorio said.
He added that the proposed $7.25 CNMI minimum wage would spell more difficulty for business when he believes that the current $5.55 an hour “is already comparable to the $7.25 an hour in the U.S. because in the CNMI, we don’t pay property tax, we don’t pay state tax, and we have a rebate system.”
Jet Holdings has 59 employees right now, and 21 of them are U.S. citizens or green card holders.
Barbecue stands, construction companies, automotive repair shops and every other small to large companies share the same uncertainty whether they would still have access to foreign workers beyond 2014.
The government and private sector employers, even if they have been stepping up training and employing as many U.S. workers as possible, concede that the CNMI needs more time to fill most private sector jobs with U.S. workers.
CNMI Labor secretary Edith DeLeon Guerrero said one of the goals is to increase the traffic of job seekers involving U.S. workers and job referrals in preparation for the end of the CW transition period.