Author’s Note: The following is a privileged speech I read during last Friday’s House session. I updated and edited it to reflect the delivery of the 2.5x list of recipients that we finally received from the Office of Management and Budget.
“Mr. speaker and colleagues: I am deeply concerned for the dozens, if not hundreds, of CNMI non-exempted government workers who are awaiting their 2.5x overtime pay they earned during the relief and recovery efforts after [Super] Typhoon Yutu devastated our islands of Saipan and Tinian back in October of 2018.
These valiant frontline government workers left their destroyed homes and drove their damaged vehicles so they could aid and assist our people. They worked long days and nights and removed fallen telephone poles and debris along stretches of roads and beaches, delivered food and water to our shelters and homes, set up hundreds of tents for families who lost their homes, and performed many other heroic deeds as needed. Their noble sacrifices have often been acknowledged and applauded, but appreciation and accolades do not pay their bills. Let us praise them but also pay them.
I have talked with many of these workers and their spouses, either in person or over the phone. Their stories are heartbreaking. All of them share the same frustrations and the same need for compensation. This 2.5x overtime compensation is needed to help them repair and rebuild their damaged homes and cars. Many of them said they did not get [Small Business Administration] loans because they didn’t qualify, or because they did not want to go deeper into debt, or because they did not want to put their homes up as collateral for the loan. Whatever the case is, the bottom line is they earned their overtime pay and have not received reasonable explanations as to why they haven’t gotten paid, or more importantly, when they will be paid.
Many of these frontline workers were asked to write letters to their superiors justifying why they should get paid or why they need the overtime pay. If anyone should be writing letters, it is elected and appointed officials, to apologize for our failure to pay these workers their 2.5x compensation for overtime that they were promised and have earned.
There seems to be confusion and some misunderstanding when it comes to compensating our non-exempted government workers. The government workers and their spouses that I communicated with believed that [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] hasn’t reimbursed the CNMI government and that the reimbursements will come on April 30 and June 30. I explained to these workers that the two dates mentioned are insignificant and irrelevant to FEMA, and shared with them what a FEMA official told me in an email correspondence. This FEMA official wrote, “FEMA reimbursement of ‘Emergency Work’ is not limited to a specific schedule. We do not have deadlines or disbursements related to April 30 or June 30. When FEMA receives supporting documents for reimbursement, we must certify the expenses are related to the reimbursement category and that the amounts are reasonable. Some of that review takes some back and forth cooperation, but FEMA is not withholding reimbursement with any specific target date. As soon as validation of reimbursable expenses are accomplished, they are submitted for release.”
Our government workers need to be properly informed that the FEMA process for “Emergency Work” is a reimbursement program. Once the CNMI government pays its workers what is owed them, FEMA can then reimburse the CNMI government. It is equally important that we give our government workers a date as to when they will get paid.
Mr. speaker and colleagues, let us be open and honest with our government workers and admit to them that the CNMI government is currently having a cash flow problem and that there isn’t enough money to pay what is owed them. If this is the case, as it appears to be, and FEMA is willing to reimburse our government 100 percent for the emergency work that includes the 2.5x overtime compensation, then why can’t we explore the possibility of looking into a short-term loan with MPLT? As soon as we are reimbursed by FEMA for the 2.5x overtime pay, we then immediately pay off the short-term loan with MPLT. If this is not possible, then can we work together with the administration in exploring other options or possibilities? I am asking for these frontline workers.
On another note, I am pleased to know that we finally received the 2.5x overtime list of paid exempted and non-exempted workers that we asked for in a meeting with acting Finance secretary David Atalig and [Office of Management and Budget’s] Virginia Villagomez from one month ago. This list is important so we know who has already been compensated and how many others are still waiting to be compensated. I have only briefly reviewed the list, but am shocked to see some Cabinet members receiving over $36,000 in overtime pay in full while hundreds of frontline workers are still awaiting their pay.
Mr. speaker and colleagues, please note that according to a FEMA official, “The expenses FEMA reimburses must be reasonable and within existing CNMI policy. Some of the test of ‘reasonableness’ is to determine if the expenses (overtime recipients and rates) are paid out during non-declared emergencies, when there is not federal reimbursement.” As per existing CNMI policy and as stated on their NOPA (Notice of Personnel Action), Cabinet members are exempted employees who are not entitled to overtime pay. I do understand that Gov. [Ralph DLG] Torres included Cabinet members in a memo dated back in November of 2018 for Yutu-related overtime compensation. But what is the law that gives him the authority to do so? Please note that I have great respect and gratitude to the Cabinet members for their relief and recovery efforts after Yutu, but we need to ensure that their compensation is fair and reasonable, within existing CNMI policy and practice, and that the governor has the legal authority to allow Cabinet members to receive overtime compensation, even though it is written on their NOPA that they are not entitled to overtime.
Thank you for allowing me to express my concerns to you, Mr. speaker and colleagues. It is my sincere hope that we work together with the [Torres] administration in prioritizing and fast tracking the 2.5x overtime pay for our frontline workers. They have done the work. Now let’s ensure they get paid what they earned in sweat equity. The hardworking frontline government workers and their families are counting on us.