Businesses heave big sigh of relief

As grace period for workers with pending CW renewals takes effect
Shirley’s Coffee Shop in Susupe is now open after more than a month of shutdown due to the delay of CW permit renewals. Most of their cooks are now able to return to work as the implementation of the 240-day grace period for workers who have pending renewals began. (Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon)

Shirley’s Coffee Shop in Susupe is now open after more than a month of shutdown due to the delay of CW permit renewals. Most of their cooks are now able to return to work as the implementation of the 240-day grace period for workers who have pending renewals began. (Frauleine Villanueva-Dizon)

Several establishments were hit hard on New Year’s Day due to delays in the processing of the Commonwealth-only work permits, which expired last Dec. 31, losing manpower and temporarily closing down business operations.

But with the implementation of the 240-day grace period for CW workers with pending permits starting yesterday, most, if not all, are back to normal operations.

After more than a month, Shirley’s Coffee Shop in Susupe was finally able to open as the grace period began. They are back to their 6am to 10pm operations, while their Garapan branch is back to 24-hour operations.

According to their management, about 12 of their cooks have still yet to receive their renewed permits. Some of them were asked for requests for evidence. Most of their dining staff was able to receive their permits in early January.

“I would say I am thankful for [the grace period]. It’s good that something was done but we lost so much already,” manager Noelle Macario said. “It was too long of a break but we’re glad to be back.”

One salon in Garapan, which was closed since January, also just got back on its feet last week after receiving permits for most of their workers. At least two would be able to report for work because of the implementation of the grace period.

Vietnamese restaurant Truongs, which was closed down for a time, also was able to open earlier as they received all their permits even before the grace period implementation, according to Triple J human resources manager Frank Ada.

The Commonwealth Utilities Corp. was also able to get about 20 of their affected power plant workers back to work around middle of January as their permits were processed.

Good news

The implementation of the grace period—which has been a long time coming—is welcome news to the business industry.

“A lot of establishments had to shut down operations because they didn’t have any of their CWs but the grace period will allow them to resume operations while they receive their permits. It’s a good thing for the economy and for the businesses themselves and for the workers because a lot of them were, I guess, in limbo,” Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios told Saipan Tribune.

“[Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands] is of course very relieved that the 240-day grace period has started; it has been at least a year and half since we have heard of this regulation,” HANMI chair Gloria Cavanagh said, “This will allow our members to continue business without disruptions as long as USCIS (U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services) is able to process a timely filed petition within this grace period.”

Cavanagh said that as of the middle of last month, there have been few petitions that have not been processed and few that have request for additional information. 

Palacios and Cavanagh both acknowledged Delegate Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (Ind-MP) for his work in getting the new rule enacted.

“A lot of this was also through the help of Congressman Kilili. He helped a lot with that and with the processing,” Palacios said.

“We again like to thank Congressman Kilili and his office for their hard work,” Cavanagh said.

Sablan, on the other hand, thanked USCIS for their cooperation.

“The enactment of the new rule allowing CW workers to continue working for 240 days while their timely-filed petitions are pending is good news for the Northern Marianas. I thank USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez for responding positively to my request to finalize this rule when he called me on Jan. 4, 2016. The rule, as you know, should prevent hardship to businesses and workers the next time petitions come up for renewal,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune.

He added that his office will continue to monitor the program as well as help the business community.

“The congressional office will continue to monitor implementation of the CW program, and we will continue providing our regular constituent services, including assisting individual employers in following up on pending CW petitions with USCIS,” Sablan said.

In another response to Sablan, Rodriguez reported that the initial processing of the 2,800 Commonwealth-only (CW) worker applications, which expired Dec. 31 of last year was finished.

Of the total, 805 received RFEs and processing was said to resume as soon as USCIS is able to receive additional supporting documents from employers.

Future concerns

The business industry hopes that negative impacts for the CNMI’s economy will now be avoided.

“With USCIS, I think if they just process in a timely manner all these applications, of course some exceptions are they need more request for information, but if they just process the CWs in a timely manner, I think it will help the businesses a lot,” Palacios said.

Cavanagh hopes the grace period would be enough time for USCIS to process renewals in the future.

“If this grace period was implemented at the end of last year, it would have been sufficient time,” Cavanagh said.

While disruptions to the CNMI’s business operations may be avoided through the grace period, concerns on whether the CW cap for all the labor needs of the CNMI will also be enough.

“Going forward, we understand that there are increases in the number of CWs filed already. Our biggest concern now is whether the cap given to us by USCIS is enough for our existing businesses as well as our new investors,” Cavanagh said.

“It will be interesting to see how petitions are prioritized and whether construction projects will be required to utilize the H visa processing,” she added.

Frauleine S. Villanueva-Dizon | Reporter
Frauleine Michelle S. Villanueva was a broadcast news producer in the Philippines before moving to the CNMI to pursue becoming a print journalist. She is interested in weather and environmental reporting but is an all-around writer. She graduated cum laude from the University of Santo Tomas with a degree in Journalism and was a sportswriter in the student publication.

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