KEY U.S. LAWMAKERS FAVOR WAGE BOARD FOR CNMI

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By Agnes E. Donato

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Mar. 8) - A proposal to create a wage review board for the Commonwealth, as opposed to applying federal wage floors here, is gaining steam in the U.S. Congress.

Washington Representative Pedro A. Tenorio has informed the CNMI Legislature that several key Democrats and Republicans in Congress-mostly, representatives from the insular areas-had expressed support for the implementation of a wage board in the CNMI.

In the Senate, those who have thrown their support behind the position taken by the CNMI government and business community include Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, and Senator Daniel K. Inouye.

In the House of Representatives, the CNMI has gained the support of Delegate Donna M. Christensen, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, as well as Representatives Luis Fortuno and Eni F.H. Faleomavaega.

Bingaman and Akaka, in a January 19, 2007 letter, warned the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of the potential impact of applying the national minimum wage to the CNMI. They noted the CNMI, like American Samoa, is facing "serious economic challenges."

They also pointed out that the transition to the minimum wage in the insular areas had historically been managed by special industry committees established under the Fair Labor and Standards Act.

Faleomavaega and Inouye echoed the two senators' concerns in a January 22, 2007 letter to the same Senate committee, which is led by Chairman Edward M. Kennedy and Ranking Member Michael B. Enzi.

The delegate from American Samoa and the senator from Hawai΄i said the wage board had successfully set minimum wage levels in the insular areas for decades, and should work in the CNMI.

Christensen and Fortuno made the same point in a February 6, 2007 letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, author of the national wage hike bill.

"As representatives of jurisdictions which have previously experienced the work of the 'special industry committee' we can both appreciate and understand the frustration of wage recommendations which are seemingly slow in raising the wages of hardworking Americans. However, we also recognize that the manner in raising wages is such so as not to disrupt the continuing economic development," said Christensen and Fortuno, which represent the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico respectively.

They added, "The CNMI however has not been subject to the FLSA either through a rise in the federal minimum wage or by wage reviews by a federal 'special industry committee.' Therefore, any increases in their local wages without a study on the impact of such an increase could be extremely harmful to the CNMI economy."

H.R. 2, the federal minimum wage hike bill, easily passed the House of Representatives. The Senate also passed the legislation, but with additional provisions giving tax breaks to small businesses that rely on low-pay workers.

Both houses of the U.S. Congress have yet to agree on a final bill to send to the president.

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