No assurance on CW extension

Perez gives no assurance to either Inos, Kilili in DC

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, along with his staff, has not given either Gov. Eloy S. Inos or Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) any assurances that the requested CW program extension will be decided “soon” nor what that decision would be, during recent meetings in Washington, D.C.

Only about nine months are left before the Dec. 31, 2014, end of the transitional federal program that gives the CNMI continued access to some 10,000 foreign workers for its economy.

While Perez has until July or 180 days before the Dec. 31 end of the CW program to decide under the law, the absence of a decision at least four years since the CNMI started asking for a five-year extension is a constant source of uncertainty for the local economy, its businesses, would-be investors, workers, and the government.

Inos has just returned from a two-week trip to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings, and got to meet with fellow U.S. governors, federal officials including Perez and U.S. Labor staff on separate occasions, among other things.

“Secretary Perez did not say what the decision will be, but he appeared to wholly understand the plight of the CNMI when Governor Inos pointed out to him the critical needs of our economy, and the lack of a viable citizen workforce to replace CW workers at the end of this year,” press secretary Angel Demapan said in an email response to questions yesterday.

Demapan, who accompanied the governor to the nation’s capital, said the governor was fortunate to be seated right beside the U.S. Labor secretary during a dinner hosted recently by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House.

The press secretary said during the White House dinner, Perez informed the governor that he is fully aware of the situation in the CNMI and that his team is working expeditiously to come up with a decision on this matter.

The governor also had the opportunity to meet with other key U.S. Labor officials at the DOL offices in Washington, D.C.

“In Governor Inos’ meeting with U.S. Labor officials the following day, Monday, February 24th, the governor again reiterated the need for US DOL to render a decision so that business and CW workers have ample time to plan their next move[s], whatever the decision may be. Governor Inos pointed out that there are several training programs in place to develop a local workforce, but the CNMI is not yet at a point where there is enough local labor capacity,” he said.

Demapan said the governor added that the CNMI “really needs this extension of transition period because current tourism trends have resulted in new businesses opening up doors and new investments coming to the islands.”

The governor cited, for example, the two requests for proposal for development of new hotels in San Antonio and Marpi.

With an expected combination of more than 1,000 new rooms and hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments, the CNMI would need more than ever the capacity provided by CW workers, he said.

“The extension being sought for is temporary relief to allow the Commonwealth to further build a resident workforce that is not only adequate, but qualified and skilled, too. Short of giving a concrete response, US DOL officials did inform Governor Inos that they have spent the past several months reviewing the situation and that they are now in the final stages of their analysis that will be presented to Secretary Perez for his final decision,” Demapan added.

He said those who attended the U.S. Labor meeting were Seema Nanda, deputy chief of staff, Office of the Secretary; Megan Uzzell, deputy assistant secretary; James Moore, deputy assistant secretary for operations; and Tony Zaffirini, senior legislative officer, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Also at the meeting were Carrianna Suiter, deputy director of Intergovernmental Affairs; Patricia Davidson, WHD deputy administrator for Program Operations; Gerri Fiala, deputy assistant secretary, Employment and Training Administration; Sean Cartwright, chief of staff, at ETA; and Alyssa McGovern, director of policy also at ETA.

Sablan separately said his office did arrange for the governor to meet with U.S. Labor officials while he was in Washington, D.C. “to press the case for the extension and for a decision as soon as possible.”

“But there is still no decision,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune over the weekend. “The department has not said that they are going to wait until the last moment to decide, however.”

The delegate said it is important to remember that this is a complex decision, “which is why it takes time.”

“There are people in the Northern Mariana Islands arguing against having any foreign workers beyond 2014. The department knows it will be criticized if it decides to extend; and it will have to defend its decision well. This means being able to show that extending the transition period will not make it harder for U.S. workers in the Northern Marianas to get jobs. Nationally, the Obama administration is focused on creating jobs. So the department has to be sure that its policy in the Northern Marianas does not result in fewer jobs,” Sablan said.

There are also those who oppose the CW extension hoping to press the Obama administration and Congress to grant improved status such as U.S. permanent residency to legal, long-term foreign workers in the CNMI before the CW program expires by end of 2014.

Sablan reiterated his view that “losing 10,000 foreign workers this year will force businesses to close and investors to pull out.”

“We just don’t have 10,000 U.S. workers to take over. And when businesses close and investors decide not to build new hotels, then our local workers will lose their existing jobs and their future job opportunities. That puts our Northern Marianas economy into a kind of downward spiral,” Sablan said.

Businesses and workers interviewed said almost every aspect of the CNMI way of life would forever change without the skilled and professional foreign workers—mostly from Asian countries—from hotel services to the economy in general, along with nursing and caregiving for the sick and elderly, engineering and architectural needs, the taste of food in restaurants or the absence of barber shops and beauty shops.

Many employers are holding off on investing more as there is still a question mark whether they would still have workers for their businesses nine months or a year or two later.

“It will be a disaster,” Herman’s Modern Bakery general manager Juan “Pan” T. Guerrero said. This statement is echoed not only by businessmen but also by government officials, employees and would-be investors.

Haidee V. Eugenio | Reporter
Haidee V. Eugenio has covered politics, immigration, business and a host of other news beats as a longtime journalist in the CNMI, and is a recipient of professional awards and commendations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental achievement award for her environmental reporting. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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