CNMI Labor: Touchback provision will hurt economy


The immigration law’s touchback provision that would require foreign workers who get their work permits to exit the CNMI for 30 days would be devastating to the still-recovering CNMI economy, according to Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente yesterday.

In an interview with Saipan Tribune, Benavente noted that while her department agrees with most of the recommendations the Saipan Chamber of Commerce had submitted to Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), the touchback provision, as described by the Chamber in their four-page letter to Sablan, would most definitely devastate the CNMI’s economy.

“…If we have to follow that law, and we have to follow that provision of the law, then that would hurt the economy further. We are still in recovery mode. Super Typhoon Yutu…really wreaked havoc on our community,” she said.

That “touchback provision,” which would require a foreign worker to leave the CNMI and “touch back” their home countries, is part of the requirements outlined in U.S. Public Law 115-218, the law that effectively extended the foreign worker program, or CW program, to 2029.

According to P.L. 115-218, at the expiration of the second renewal period of a CW permit holder, the employee would not be eligible for a renewal until after the employee exits the CNMI for 30 consecutive days before an employer can then submit a renewal petition.

“It’s going to put a strain on the workers here,” Benavente said.

She noted that with a large amount of workers gone for a few days, she fears that businesses might have to reduce hours in order to cope with the temporary drop in manpower.

“Businesses may be forced to close their operations,” she said. “…If operations shut down, you lose U.S. citizen workers. If operating hours are reduced, your workers, whether U.S. citizens or foreign workers, will all feel the effect.”

When asked why the Labor Department did not speak up during discussions on P.L. 115-218, Benavente noted that this was one of the “unintended consequences” of the legislation.

“I don’t think we realized the impact at that point in time,” she said. “Also, the regulations came out rather quickly and not fully discussed at the table with everyone. Now, we are hearing from the businesses [about losing employees and hesitating to stock up].”

“This situation was not anticipated, was not expected. The end result was to be sure U.S. workers is given preference in the workforce,” she added.

The Chamber’s letter, as signed by president Velma Palacios, recommends changing the provision in order to avert shutting down a “volatile economy.”

Other requests for changes in P.L. 115-218 include supporting periodic prevailing wage survey over an annual survey; providing local jurisdiction to the CNMI Labor Department to carry out Temporary Labor Certifications and prevailing wage determinations for faster processing times; an increased window for CW visa holders to enter the CNMI after receiving their visa; and allowing a five-year period that allows construction workers to apply for CW visas.

In general, Benavente told Saipan Tribune that she was in support of the recommendations.

“Most of the contents in the letter I support,” she said.

When asked about her department undertaking the prevailing wage determinations and the Temporary Labor Certification processing, she noted that her department is up to the task.

“Since we are also on the ground, we can check on businesses,” she said. “Anything to help our businesses survive…we [CNMI DOL] can do this.”

As of publication, Sablan has yet to confirm his receipt of the Chamber’s letter. Saipan Tribune learned Wednesday that he is in transit to the U.S. as of Tuesday morning.

Saipan Tribune learned Wednesday afternoon that Palacios reportedly discussed the letter with the delegate.

Erwin Encinares | Reporter
Erwin Charles Tan Encinares holds a bachelor’s degree from the Chiang Kai Shek College and has covered a wide spectrum of assignments for the Saipan Tribune. Encinares is the paper’s political reporter.
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