Labor Secretary Vicky Benavante can’t wait for 2019 to end, given the many challenges her agency faced in the current year, from breaking in new regulations for the foreign worker program, to a ban on Filipino construction workers, to the last-minute approval of permanent residency to some parolees.
“What a year this has been for the Marianas and the Department of Labor! We’ve faced many challenges—the implementation of the new CW-1 permit regulations, the CNMI Prevailing Wage, the just-under-the-wire extension for [Employment Authorization Document] holders, the H-2B ban of workers from the Philippines, and the ongoing recovery from Super Typhoon Yutu. Still, the Marianas is showing its resilience more than ever, as a community that is working together to overcome these turbulent times,” she said in an email to Saipan Tribune.
The CNMI-Only Transitional Worker program that was supposed to end in 2019 was extended for another 10 years in 2018. However, the complex new non-immigrant worker process had employees and employers alike in pins and needles as the previous one-step process became a cumbersome six-step affair.
Fortunately, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services extended the filing of renewals for employers who have not yet received the temporary labor certifications required to renew their employees’ CW permits for fiscal year 2020.
One of the new components of the extended CW program is the CNMI Prevailing Wage, which was started late and suffered from not many companies actually participating.
And then there was the U.S. declaring the Philippines ineligible for the H-2B visa program due to overstaying and human trafficking concerns.
Many Filipino construction workers in the CNMI arrived under that program and the Commonwealth relied heavily in the Southeast Asian nation for its labor needs due to its proximity.
The issue on EAD holder, meanwhile, encompassed more than a thousand people living in the CNMI under humanitarian parole. President Donald Trump granted them permanent residency in the CNMI last June after signing H.R. 559, or the Northern Mariana Islands Long-Term Legal Residents Relief Act, into law.
Those who qualified for CNMI-only permanent residency included 800 spouses and parents of American citizens. Others who qualify include live-in caregivers, people born in the Marianas before Covenant citizenship provisions came into effect, and people given permanent residency under Commonwealth law in the early 1980s.
All would have been forced to leave the CNMI last June if the bill had not been signed into law.
Benavente said Labor and the CNMI wouldn’t have overcome these challenges without the help of the federal government.
“We are grateful for the assistance from our federal partners, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Defense for its untiring support toward rebuilding our homes, schools, the hospital, and other critical infrastructure. Also thankful to the U.S. Department of Labor for grants for disaster relief for workers who either lost their jobs from the typhoon devastation or had reduced working hours for many months this year,” she said.
She also cited the sacrifices of her staff at CNMI Labor and for overcoming the tough challenges against the backdrop of recovery from Super Typhoon Yutu, which hit Saipan and Tinian in late 2018.
“Mostly, I’m so appreciative of the Department of Labor staff on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota, for their hard work and dedication, especially in the aftermath of Yutu. We were working out of three different buildings, because our DOL offices were without water and power. The staff and directors pitched in unselfishly helping our clients and never complained about their own damaged homes and loss of property. This DOL team is awesome!”