Sablan bats for $10 minimum wage
Rep. Tina Sablan (D-Saipan) has proposed a House bill that could raise the CNMI minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 in the next four years.
During a special House session yesterday, Sablan offered House Bill 22-98 to establish a CNMI minimum wage that is not less than the federal minimum wage; to gradually increase the CNMI minimum wage by $0.55 increments within 120 days of the effective date of the act, and every year thereafter until the minimum wage is $10 per hour.
The bill was referred to the Ways and Means Committee following the session.
Sablan said House Bill 22-98 repeals or amends outdated sections of the CNMI wage and hour law that discriminate against workers with unpaid wage claims and certain categories of workers, including elderly workers, domestic workers, and workers with disabilities.
House Bill 22-98 also takes aim at the extremely limited window of time for workers to file claims for unpaid wages or other compensation owed them. Under current statutes, workers are allowed just six months after the last occurring violation, or within 30 days after termination of a contract to recoup unpaid wages.
“It often takes more time than that for workers to realize that their rights have been violated and that they are owed money, and to understand and navigate the process for filing complaints. Over the years, many workers in the CNMI who have been cheated by their employers have had their claims time-barred and dismissed. With this legislation, we extend the time for filing claims to six years, similar to Hawaii,” she said.
In addition, House Bill 22-98 tackles the issue of wage theft, where employers who cheat their workers hurt not only the workers and their families, but also the reputation of the Commonwealth.
“We want the CNMI to be a place where workers’ rights are protected and where legitimate businesses can compete on a fair and level playing field. This legislation stiffens the penalties for bad actor employers who violate wage and hour laws, including employers who retaliate against workers who file complaints,” the representative said.
According to Sablan, the incremental increase is similar to the approach taken with the application of the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, which recognized the need to raise the minimum wage to fairer, more livable, and more competitive levels, while also taking into account uncertain economic conditions and the need of local employers to have time to adjust.
Work on the legislation began in 2021, when Sablan reviewed workforce and wage data available for the CNMI, including prevailing wage studies and U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, surveyed wage laws in other states and territories; consulted with labor lawyers and advocates, and considered the enforcement challenges and recommendations from workers and both federal and local labor officials.
“According to the 2021 Prevailing Wage Study, the median hourly wage in the CNMI is $9.97. This means that half of the CNMI’s workers are already earning $9.97 per hour or more. A GAO report on workforce trends in the Marianas released last February indicated that more than 94% of the CNMI’s workers are already earning more than the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and that a hypothetical minimum wage increase to $10 per hour would affect half of the current workforce,” she said.
She explained that federal minimum wage levels have not increased from $7.25 per hour since 2007, and most states have implemented minimum wages that are higher than the federal level.
“While Guam’s minimum wage is set to increase from $8.75 to $9.25 per hour by September 2022, there have been no minimum wage increases in the CNMI since 2017, where the cost of living is significantly higher than many other jurisdictions,” she said.
The bill was cosponsored by House Speaker Edmund Villagomez, Reps. Leila Staffler (D-5), Celina Babauta (D-1), Richard Lizama (D-5), Denita Yangetmai (D-3), and Vicente Camacho (D-3), House Bill 22-98 also improves protections for workers by repealing or amending certain sections of the administration and enforcement provisions of the Minimum Wage and Hour Act.