The CNMI government is looking at terminating excepted service employees, and furloughing Civil Service employees for one year, to cut government personnel costs by half.
Due to the negative economic impact of COVID-19 in the CNMI, and with the estimated 48% reduction in the fiscal year 2020 government budget, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres advised the Office of Personnel Management yesterday to implement “extreme measures to ensure that the Executive Branch” has enough funds to pay its employees.
This would mean termination of all Excepted Service employees, other than those in federally funded positions or expressly exempted by the governor, and the furlough of some Civil Service employees for a one-year period, to bring the overall governments personnel costs down by 50%.
“This is a very, very difficult spot for our government to be in,” press secretary Kevin Bautista said in an interview with Saipan Tribune. “The CNMI government is working round-the-clock, through the CNMI Department of Labor, to get official confirmation on the eligibility of our government employees to be on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.”
Bautista added that the governor already signed an agreement to implement the program, and that the CNMI Department of Labor is working with U.S. Labor on the guidelines to identify those who would be eligible, and the benefits that they will receive while on furlough or after being terminated.
“This government is working very hard to take care of its employees that will be getting furloughed and terminated as a result of the lack of economic activity in the CNMI, and the lack of funding that is in our current budget projection,” Bautista said.
As with the rest of the world, the CNMI government is at a level that it has never seen before, Bautista said.
“Fiscal year 2020 started off really positive, with some strong collections in the first quarter of the fiscal year. We were looking to make 2020 a strong year for the Commonwealth, especially after recovering from Super Typhoon Yutu,” he said.
Tourism was rebounding in the first month in the first quarter and things were looking positive for the CNMI to get back to a level pre-super typhoon Yutu. Then the COVID-19 outbreak started in late 2019, he said.
That pandemic is still happening until today, forcing the government to make difficult decisions, Bautista said, from requesting that all flights in China be suspended, which led to a 40% decline in CNMI tourism, to the suspension of all flights to and from the CNMI this April.
“Our economy is at a standstill, at a very unprecedented level that we have never seen before in the history of the CNMI, in the history of this country, where the economy in states and territories have essentially stopped because social distancing is the only factor that we can control in combating this pandemic as we continue to wait for vaccines and medical treatment for COVID-19,” he said.
With no economy and with the government reserves used to pay the upfront costs to expedite the CNMI’s recovery after Super Typhoon Yutu, the government is working very hard to keep services up, he said.
According to Bautista, out of all 55 state and territorial governments, the CNMI is the only territorial government in the country that is making furloughs and cuts in the manner that the local government is doing, reducing the overall government personnel costs by 50%.
“No other state or territorial government is doing that,” Bautista said, “because we are an island economy, and this global pandemic has negatively impacted the overall world economy. We’re having to survive off of the resources that we have in order to combat the public health threat of COVID-19,” he added.
The furlough list
In a memo addressed to all department and activity heads yesterday, OPM director Isidro K. Seman directed all managers to review all staffing, including related staffing costs, and to determine positions that must be terminated or furloughed to meet the required reduction.
The list must be submitted to Torres by today, Wednesday, April 8, and the department heads’ recommended retentions, terminations, and furloughs will be reviewed.
After approval, each office must prepare the termination and furlough letters, to be signed by the department head, and the employee.
In his memo, Seman also informed all department and activity heads that the governor acknowledges that this will be a difficult task, and advised that the matter be addressed by position, and not by the individual occupying the position. “You, as the department or activity head, must determine which functions of your organization can be eliminated or combined during this crisis period and the minimum number of staff that must be retained to effect the retained functions in the most cost-efficient manner.”
“The governor emphasized that this is not the occasion to make retention decisions based on family or friendship, but on the needs and best interests of the government, based on performance and service,” Seman added.
With the economy at a standstill, the administration continues to work with the federal government to leverage existing resources. “We’re continuing to protect the public health and welfare of everyone in the CNMI, that has never wavered. Protecting everyone’s public health is not going to be affected by a budget cut,” Bautista said. “The governor and lieutenant governor know that we have to overcome this virus together. We’re doing our very best to take care of everyone affected by this.”
The press secretary assured that the administration is going to use every single resource available to take care of government employees, including working with U.S. Labor to ensure the protection of all of those who would be terminated or furloughed.