Inos Wants To Redistribute CNMI Foreign Worker Funds

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Administration moving to place more US workers in private sector

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 7, 2014) – Gov. Eloy S. Inos said in his first Cabinet meeting for 2014 yesterday that he wants a redistribution of millions of dollars in Commonwealth-only worker (CW) funds so that more will go into paying the actual on-the-job training salaries of U.S. workers in the private sector and less into the Public School System (PSS) and Northern Marianas College (NMC) where results may be harder to come by.

Redistributing CW funds entails amending the current CNMI budget law.

This is because the fiscal year 2014 budget law appropriates $500,000 each to PSS and NMC and $400,000 to Northern Marianas Trade Institute "or other appropriate job training program."

With more CW funds going into this "targeted" approach, private sector employers won’t be burdened with added payroll costs just to train and pay U.S. workers’ salaries for up to six months or longer, Inos said.

After six months, for example, private sector employers would have to decide whether to continue hiring the same U.S. worker they helped train.

The Inos administration is taking a more aggressive approach to prepare and place more U.S. workers in the private sector at a time when some 12,000 foreign workers might have to exit the CNMI either after Dec. 31, 2014, or 2019.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is expected to decide soon whether to extend the CW program beyond 2014.

The governor said the new approach to placing as many U.S. workers possible in jobs is similar to the federally funded Workforce Investment Agency program; only in this case, CW funds will be used.

CW funds are derived from the $150 fee that CNMI employers pay for every foreign worker they petition. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services remits these money to the CNMI government.

Inos said the CNMI may have received $1.8 million to $1.9 million in 2013 alone. But since end-2011, the amount would have been double or triple that.

As of yesterday, the Department of Finance has yet to release actual CW fund remittances covering the period from 2011 to present.

"I want this thing targeted for that kind of program and maybe reduce the amount of money that’s going to the academic side because there’s less guarantee…yeah we teach people at the college or PSS’ but there’s no guarantee that these people would actually go and work with the private sector. But if we do a targeted program, they are there already," the governor said in an interview after convening his Cabinet for the first time in 2014 yesterday.

CNMI Labor Secretary Edith DeLeon Guerrero separately said the 2014 goal is to increase employment of U.S. citizens, permanent residents or "green card" holders, and those from the Federated States of Micronesia. Collectively, they are referred to as U.S. workers.

"The jobs are there," DeLeon Guerrero said, adding that it is a matter of training and employing the available U.S. workers.

Over 10,000 foreign workers that the CNMI economy has relied upon may have to exit the CNMI after the end of the transitional CW program.

Currently, there are not enough U.S. workers to fill all these jobs because of the sheer number of positions available plus lack of training for many of the U.S. workers available.

The government and private sector are working together to prepare and hire more U.S. workers at a time when the tourism-based economy is on the upswing once again after years of weak performance.

Inos wants to put to better use the CW funds that private sector employers pay.

"That’s why I want to modify that program. Give some to PSS, give some to NMC and at least they can help prepare these people to be job-ready, teach about [work] ethic, employment, [teach] them how to go for the job interview. The other component which should be the bigger component is go ahead and place these U.S. eligible workers down to take the jobs at the private sector occupied by nonresident workers," he said.

The governor said that, just like the WIA program, they would require a periodic review by the employer with the commitment that if the U.S. workers performed well on their on-the-job-training, they would be hired permanently.

Inos wants the CW-funded on-the-job-training program to start as soon as possible.

"I’ve asked the secretary of Labor to really look into that because we can’t wait until after the fifth year, assuming we have the extension. We can’t wait forever; we got to start doing something," he added.

He added that the CNMI can’t continue to use the argument that "people are not trained or people don’t know how to work."

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) has also been demanding accountability and performance standards on the $150 CW fee that’s supposed to train and get U.S. workers employed, now that remittances from USCIS have reached millions.

Among other things, Sablan wants information on how NMC and PSS are using the CW money they have gotten—and will get annually—as long as there are foreign workers under the CW program.

The delegate also seeks data whether any U.S. worker who has gotten training funded by the CW fee has gotten a job.

2014 goals

The governor met with some 20 members of his Cabinet and other government officials for more than three hours on Capital Hill yesterday to look back at the completed and unfinished projects from 2013, with the goal of completing them in 2014.

Public Works Secretary Martin Sablan and the governor said these are in addition to new capital improvement projects, many of them now under architectural and engineering design phase.

The administration looks forward to the completion of the ongoing Isa Drive or Back Road construction project, among other things.

Inos said the government is now drafting regulations for the operations of the new Marpi public cemetery, which has yet to be used some two years since it was built.

Department of Lands and Natural Resources Secretary Arnold I. Palacios, in a separate interview, said DLNR has been given the added responsibility of overseeing the operations of the new Marpi public cemetery.

He said DLNR also has responsibility over submerged lands.

The governor also reiterated a newly-issued request for proposals for the assessment of geothermal resource on Saipan, and the soon-to-be-issued RFP for the integration of renewable energy.

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