Members of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp. are calling on U.S. Congress to enact technical amendments to the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act (U.S. Public Law 115-218) to mitigate unintended harm to the CNMI economy.
In a series of meetings held with members of Congress and officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Labor, and the White House this month, NMBAC presented a list of issues requiring federal attention gathered from the experience of its members throughout the first year of implementation of P.L. 115-218.
According to NMBAC president Alex Sablan, the NMBAC is grateful for the opportunity to continue the important discussion about ensuring that this new transitionary period best supports the needs of the U.S. workers in the community and does not cause undue harm to the overall economy.
“Following the enactment of the U.S. Workforce Act in 2018, we recognized the need for continual dialogue on a number of key provisions of the law that created the possibility for overburdening employers within the economy and, more importantly, undermining the intents of the law which is to recruit, hire and train greater numbers of U.S. workers here,” he said. “We are, of course, grateful for all the effort made to extend the transition period in 2018 and feel continued conversation about both statutory and regulatory language is an excellent example of how the private sector is willing to be active and considerate partners in this effort.”
NMBAC presented federal officials with a “white paper” that provided five recommendations for amendments to the Workforce Act, which included extending Temporary Labor Certification authority to the CNMI government by mirroring the structure present in Guam, allowing for calculated Prevailing Wages to be valid for a 24-month period in line with existing U.S. work visa requirements, allow for numerical limits to adjust upward if the economy demands greater workers, repeal the exemption for construction workers under the CW-1 program, and repeal the “touchback” provision that requires a CW-1 permit holder to depart the CNMI for a 30-day period prior to the submission of their third renewal petition.
Sablan said the intent of this paper was to ensure members of Congress and the Trump administration understood the complete context of the CNMI’s situation and our interest in seeing this program work.
“The CNMI economy and its labor force is experiencing one of the most turbulent periods in its recent history and it is important that Congress be made aware of the challenges our community is facing so that we can all work together to ensure the economy can eventually rebound,” he said. “We feel that these requests both demonstrate a willingness to improve the program and prevent further harm from being inflicted onto our private sector at the time they are deeply struggling.
“Much of our conversations were highlighted by the current difficulties the CNMI economy is experiencing in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yutu and the outbreak of the coronavirus, which have greatly impacted businesses and our ability to create more opportunities of U.S. workers,” he added.
During their door-knocking sessions on Capitol Hill, NMBAC members met with the Offices of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sen. Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).
“We greatly appreciate the time that was provided to listen to the concerns of our community and to continue to this necessary discussion for success of our economy,” Sablan said.
Meetings with fed officials
In addition to congressional office visits, NMBAC met with officials of the Trump administration to clarify and discuss regulations governing the implementation of the Workforce Act.
NMBAC members provided updates to federal officials on the status of the CNMI economy following the dramatic reduction in tourist arrivals caused by concerns over the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“It is important for our federal partners to know the severity of the impact this has on our economy,” Sablan said. “We are an economy based on tourism without the tourists needed to sustain our industry.”
The effects of the coronavirus outbreak on the workforce was a key discussion with officials of the U.S. Department of Labor as clarification was requested on the ability for employers to reduce work hours of CW-1 employees required during the downturn in arrivals.
Under regulations published by the department, employers must ensure three-fourths or 75% of the annual contract hours to their CW-1 employees and U.S. workers employed in equivalent positions. Labor officials clarified that the three-fourths requirement pertains to maintaining 75% of total annual hours during the contract period, which incorporate regular, overtime, holiday and paid leave hours already encumbered under the current contract.
“This was a necessary clarification as employers are seeing a need to reduce hours but are interested in making this business decision in line with the requirements of U.S. Labor,” Sablan said.
NMBAC also discussed the implementation of the application process for the additional 3,000 construction workers provided by the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 (U.S. Public Law 116-94). NMBAC members sought clarification in how the department would determine the association between labor certification applications with projects related to the recovery from a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency.
Under the law, CW-1 permits are authorized for construction occupations so long as the individuals were employed in the service of a contract or subcontract for construction, repairs, renovations, or facility services directly connected to, or associated with, recovery from a federally declared disaster.
According to Sablan NMBAC stressed the need for DHS to provide guidance for employers to use in justifying contracts related to recovery efforts as well as on the implementation of long-term status relief for those covered under the Northern Mariana Islands Long-Term Legal Residents Relief Act.
“We are grateful that DHS heard our request and, shortly after our meeting, published additional information to employers on this critical lifeline for our recovery and our economy,” Sablan said. “Employers in the CNMI and eligible applicants needed further information on information required for processing these petitions and this additional guidance is of tremendous assistance going forward.”
NMBAC further met with officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to request the status of regulations on the CW-1 program.
“One important provision of the Workforce Act is the creation of a CW-1 permit that is valid for a three-year period, if the employee has met certain requirements.” Sablan said. “As we are coming up to the first implementation of the touchback provision, having the regulations and the process for applying for this three-year permit will ease the impact of a mass outflow of nearly half our CW-1 workforce and allow for businesses to avoid closure following the prolonged absence of the majority of their employees.
“The conversations were productive, and we were assured the department is working toward the imminent publication of these regulations,” he added.
Members of the NMBAC attending these meetings included Velma Palacios, president of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce; Gloria Cavanagh, president of the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands; and Catherine Cachero, chapter president of the Society for Human Resource Management. (PR)