CNMI Governor: Don’t Assume CW Program Will Be Extended

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

CNMI Governor: Don’t Assume CW Program Will Be Extended Torres tells businesses to pursue alternative visas for foreign workers

By Cherrie Anne E. Villahermosa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 29, 2016) – Governor Ralph D.L.G. Torres is encouraging the business community to pursue alternative visa classifications such as the H-visa when hiring foreign workers and to increase their wages to attract quality, local and U.S. eligible workers.

Torres was the guest speaker of the Society of Human Resource Management-NMI chapter on Thursday at PIC-Charley’s.

In his speech, he said employers should also utilize the pool of Workforce Investment Agency trainees as the CNMI prepares for the end of the federal CW program on Dec. 31, 2019.

"We cannot assume that another extension will be granted," he said. "This will require your businesses to make difficult decisions regarding your labor force makeup today."

He added, "I encourage you to pursue the hiring of personnel outside of the CW program. For entry-level positions, I encourage you to utilize our Department of Labor’s pool of U.S. eligible job seekers. Utilize the pool of WIA trainees, and for large-scale construction projects, I urge you to pursue alternative visa classifications such as the H-visa classification that are better suited for this occupation. And I ask that you make the wise business decision to increase the wages you are advertising to job seekers to attract quality, local and U.S. eligible workers that will make your business succeed."

According to Torres, "This is the right decision not just for your businesses but for our community as we make every effort to be responsible partners in this transitionary period. The greater the number of US eligible workers you are able to attract to your businesses, the more ready you will be for whatever outcome 2019 holds."

Torres acknowledged the importance of CW workers in the CNMI as highlighted by the late Gov. Eloy S. Inos in his letter to President Obama requesting 902 consultations.

Torres said Inos requested the consultation because foreign workers in the CNMI play a vital role in many labor intensive fields including healthcare and construction occupations.

Inos made it clear in his letter that the CNMI is undergoing significant developments and that "no other way to abruptly replace the guest workers at this stage is foreseen."

But Torres said an extension or reformation of the CW program is a U.S. congressional matter that requires federal legislation.

As provided by the federalization law, the CW program was extended for five years in 2014 by the federal government.

In his speech, Torres said: "I hear the complaints of many that we don’t need foreign workers, and that all we need to do is to develop our local capacity and our problems will be solved. I wish that were the case, but unfortunately for the current state of our economy and the proposed development in our future, the numbers we have available just don’t pan out that way."

Torres noted that U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez himself acknowledged the disparity and said the total number of unemployed U.S. workers in the CNMI in 2010 was equivalent only to 20 percent of the then-14,958 foreign workers.

This fiscal year, the CW cap was reduced to 12,999. In the past, the CNMI has hosted some 30,000 guest workers.

Torres said even if all the U.S. workers not in the labor force were employed, more than 11,000 jobs would still need to be filled by foreign workers.

Torres also discussed the things that Inos initiated, including the 902 consultation so that the CNMI can discuss the military buildup and the CW program with White House representatives.

The governor said much is still in the planning stages and the White House has yet to respond to the CNMI request for consultations.

"But we are told that they are working on developing their team. There is still much work to be done, and I will rely heavily on the input of the business community as we progress in this important process," he said.

Torres also spoke of the things that his administration is now working on such as reforming the work registration requirement of social services like the food stamp program to require greater labor force participation among recipients, and to revisit the memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to include the Earned Income Tax Credit or EITC as a federally funded tax credit program.

Torres said extending the EITC to the CNMI, which U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan is also working on right now, is a very important element of workforce development as it allows lower-income households to work and earn more.

Torres said it has proven to be one of the most successful anti-poverty programs implemented by the federal government.

He said the CNMI is already in agreement with the IRS for the "cover-over" of the costs the CNMI incurs for the Child Tax Credit program, adding that he is now planning to include the EITC with this agreement instead of the other federally funded workforce development programs that the CNMI would have received if the statute authorized the commonwealth government to do so.

He said his office will also push for better data collection to assess the current state of the labor force.

"I am redirecting the work of the offices under the governor’s office to focus primarily on the hiring and training of our local workforce. Currently we have the Offices of the Women’s Affairs, Indigenous Affairs and Carolinian Affairs and while the work they do serves an important purpose, I will combine their efforts and their networks with the sole purpose of getting able workers into the labor force earning a decent wage and contributing to this critical endeavor.

"However, despite the work of your government on this issue it will require more than consultations and data to achieve a successful outcome in 2019. We need to make every effort to showcase that we are serious about this transition."

Difficult

But Frank Gibson, former SHRM president, said the CW program is still the most practical process when hiring foreign workers, adding that H-visas are difficult to secure and are expensive.

"The H-2B is for temporary projects and for temporary workers, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has determined that it is for special projects like construction. H1-B is for those in specialized fields like medicine, but you cannot hire clerks and sales associates through the H-visa process. We still need the CW program — that is what we need," he added.

Jim Arenovski, another businessman in the CNMI, said it is up to an employer whether to offer higher salaries.

The CNMI minimum wage is currently $6.05 an hour and will increase by 50 cents this year. Under federal law, it will now increase every year until it reaches the federal rate of $7.25 an hour in 2018.

Arenovski said the Legislature should help the governor as he seeks to address workforce and other related problems and requests assistance from the federal government.

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