Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said the CNMI is trying its best to employ more U.S.-eligible workers and ease its reliance on foreign workers in a written statement before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources’ public hearing this morning on a bill to extend and expand the CNMI-Only Transitional Worker program.
Torres cited U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics and statistics obtained from the Northern Marianas College and the CNMI Department of Labor.
The public hearing tackled Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) S. 2325, which seeks to extend the transitional period of the CNMI by 10 more years, ultimately also extending several essential programs under it such as the foreign worker program
“In fiscal years 2012 and 2013, the top two job classifications listed were for marketing and sales, and food service occupations. In 2016, the top two jobs were in construction and building trades, which speaks toward the growth of our economy and the demand for new construction. Since 2013, [NMC] successfully launched its four-year bachelor’s degree in business, with training in accounting. This timeframe saw accounting positions in the CW program fall from eighth highest in demand to 15th in 2016,” he said.
Torres added that Murkowski’s request to the Governmental Accountability Office to conduct a study on the CNMI’s reliance on foreign labor states that the foreign workers compose nearly half of the total labor workforce of the CNMI, an overall 11-percent increase compared to 2009.
“In today’s economy, more U.S. workers are building greater levels of economic growth than ever before, and this success is worth continuing,” he stated.
Aside from Torres, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), Rep. Angel A. Demapan (R-Saipan), Senate President Arnold I. Palacios (R-Saipan), members of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corp., and CNMI Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente also attended this morning’ public hearing.
“I believe this bill is shaped upon these lessons learned and will allow us to be better partners in our shared goal of building a strong economy through a strong U.S. workforce,” said Torres.
“The bill provides for protections of U.S. workers in our labor force through measures that are necessary for the CNMI to more adequately hire and retain U.S. workers. The creation of wage standards, such as the prevailing wage, was a position I have supported in our most recent 902 consultations and is necessary to ensure wages remain competitive enough to entice U.S. workers and that the presence of foreign workers under the CW-1 program do not reduce opportunities for U.S. citizens. Additionally, the requirement for employers to first seek a foreign labor certification is a long-awaited component of the transition period, that can allow for greater targeting of U.S. training efforts and properly transition occupations critical to the economy as more U.S. workers are recruited and trained,” he said.
“The GAO has already found that without CW-1 workers in the CNMI, we stand to lose as much as 62 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. The effects of this massive economic collapse will be profound. We estimate that if the economy contracts by this amount, we stand to lose 25 percent of our U.S. workforce as a result of business closures, and an even greater amount from the outward migration of U.S. workers that will follow. With the economic contraction, our data shows a potential reduction of 59 percent in local revenue. That would potentially leave the CNMI with an annual operating budget of less than $100 million dollars. This, compounded by our debt service obligations and payments to our federally administered pension settlement fund, on top of Constitutional obligations to our school system, could leave the CNMI government approximately $14 million to operate a government. I have witnessed tight budgets in the past. The government austerity measures. The inability to pay for gasoline for our police cars. The long lines at the food stamp office. This will be far worse,” added Torres.
In his written statement, Torres also said that the U.S. Public Law 110-229, or the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, changed the economy of the CNMI.
“The year following Public Law 110-229, the CNMI economy contracted by an astonishing 17.5 percent. What followed were years of severe economic depression, reduced government revenues and [fewer] opportunities for employment for all residents,” said Torres.
He added that since 2014, the process to revive the economy and undoing the several years of economic decline started to show real progress.
“We saw more businesses open and more jobs become available. This growth occurred within the federal control of immigration and has shown that we can both work toward transitioning foreign workers and building a viable economy successfully if we do it together,” Torres said.
Legacy workers equally as important
Murkowski’s S.2325 also included a provision that allowed workers who have been utilizing the CW program since fiscal year 2014 to be eligible for the CW-3 permit, which is renewed at an interval of three years compared to annual renewals of the CW-1.
According to Torres, several workers who are eligible to work through the CW-3 permit have been in the CNMI since before the CW program’s establishment in 2008.
“These individuals are a part of our community and their expertise and knowledge will be crucial toward providing the next generation of U.S. workers the on-the-job training that will be essential for the success of our economy,” he said.
Besides meeting with the committee in Washington, D.C., Torres, Demapan, and members of NMBAC also met with the U.S. House counterpart to Murkowski, Congressman Robert Bishop (R-UT), who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.
“The opportunity to speak directly to the chairman of the House Committee that has jurisdiction over our islands was vital toward advocating for the stability of our economy. We provided information to chairman Bishop about the role foreign workers play in providing more jobs and opportunities for U.S. citizens and the important safeguards the NMI U.S. Workforce Act puts in place to protect U.S. workers. Overall, I am heartened by chairman Bishop’s support of our economy and the needs of our people,” said Torres in a statement.
Demapan, who was with Torres at the time, said that their meeting with Bishop to convey the importance of continuing the CNMI upward economy growth was “comforting.”
“It is comforting to have chairman Bishop’s recognition and appreciation that the Commonwealth is not seeking a federal bailout, but simply a legislative fix that will give the CNMI government and businesses the resources to further strengthen our economy and provide more opportunities for our people,” said Demapan.