CNMI Utility, Workers Sue Over Delayed Renewal Of Permits

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Foreign employees ask court to allow them to return to work

By Ferdie De La Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 5, 2016) – The Commonwealth Utilities Corp. and 18 of its foreign workers sued Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Charles Johnson and other federal officials yesterday over the delayed renewal of their Commonwealth-only worker, or CW-1, permits. CUC also asked the federal court to issue a temporary restraining order that would allow these CW-1 workers to immediately return to work.

CUC acting executive director Gary P. Camacho said the affected foreign workers are all technical specialists assigned at the main power plant in Lower Base on Saipan.

Aside from Johnson, other defendants in the lawsuit are Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Saarah Saldana and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodriguez.

U.S. District Court for the NMI Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona ordered the three federal officials to submit a response no later than 12pm today, Tuesday, whether a TRO should be issued.

The TRO hearing will be today, Tuesday, at 3:30pm.

CUC and the 19 affected workers, through counsel James Sirok, asked the court to issue a TRO allowing these CW-1 workers to return to work and prevent the defendants from taking any adverse action against these workers until a final decision is made on the merits of CUC’s and the workers’ claims in their complaint.

In his declaration, Camacho said the CW-1 permits expired on Dec. 31, 2015, and the affected workers were instructed that they would not be able to continue to work at the main power plant, which generates all of the public power for Saipan and is used to provide all of the utility’s power, water and wastewater utility services.

Camacho said CUC is currently dependent on the CW-1 workers’ employment and the renewal of their permits to prevent a negative impact on its ability to provide essential utility services to the public and to critical facilities such as the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., the Public School System, the Department of Public Safety, and the Saipan International Airport.

Camacho said the affected foreign workers are specialists with experience in the type of massive power generation engines that CUC uses to generate power.

"Without their expertise, there is and will continue to be a direct deterioration of service to the utility’s customers and the general public of the CNMI," Camacho said.

He said the inability to use these CW-1 employees—and the resulting lack of qualified manpower—will be felt on CUC’s ability to effectively provide and sustain the power needs of hotels and businesses that support the CNMI’s tourist industry, including a potential disruption of water services throughout the island.

While the lawsuit is not a class action, Sirok said the court’s ruling on their request for injunctive relief, as well as on the underlying merits of the case, will be applicable to thousands of CW-1 workers and their employers who are currently in the same position.

Sirok asserted that the Federal Administrative Procedure Act allows a CW-1 worker to continue to work after the expiration of the CW-1’s validity period during the agency’s review of a timely filed petition for a CW-1 renewal/extension of stay.

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