‘A short-sighted approach’

SIX months after the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 339, the U.S. Senate finally approved the bill Wednesday with major amendments.

Introduced by U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan early in January, the bill originally proposed to increase the CW cap by 2,000 in fiscal year 2017.

But the U.S. Senate version will add only 350 permits, 60 of which are for healthcare workers and 10 for power-plant operators.

The bill now heads back to the U.S. House for final approval before being transmitted to President Donald Trump. Fiscal year 2017 ends on Sept. 30, 2017.

In a statement, Kilili said asking for more foreign workers was “a hard sell,” adding that “there is a sentiment on both sides of the aisle that the foreign-worker [CW] program should not be extended” when it ends in Dec. 2019.

Rep. Angel Demapan, for his part, expressed concern over the bill’s “short-sighted approach in not setting aside a certain number of permits for construction workers.”

He added, “By the time this bill becomes law, if it does become law, there will be just a few weeks or days left for businesses to avail themselves of the additional CW slots. It will also be a challenge since employers are asked to submit their CW petitions six months in advance.”

Still, he said, he was thankful to U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Maria Cantwell for setting aside 60 permits for healthcare workers and 10 permits for power-plant operators.

However, “I have also been contacted by almost all of the commonwealth’s longstanding and honest construction companies which have, over the past decades, helped build our homes, schools, churches and roads, and they have expressed their disappointment with regards to how H.R. 339 was crafted to put construction companies out of business and put the future of our economy in a chokehold. If Congress wants to end development, then they should not do so at the expense of all construction projects in our community. We have few construction workers left on island, and I am deeply concerned about the adverse impact this bill will have on our island residents and their chance of building affordable homes in the future,” he said.

“What we need is legislation that addresses our long-term needs and provides equity for residents and businesses alike.”

Gov. Ralph Torres said his administration will continue to focus on long-term solutions to address the islands’ workforce issue.

“I want to thank [Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee] Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski and ranking member Maria Cantwell for their work in holding a hearing on the bill [in April] and for meeting with me in Washington, D.C. to discuss their concerns and the needs of our community. This increase [in CW permits] allows us to keep critical positions in our workforce, especially our nurses and healthcare workers at [the Commonwealth healthcare Corp.],” the governor said.

“While the passage of this bill is positive for our community, we will continue to focus on a long-term solution to the workforce needs of our growing economy. This includes stepping up our efforts to recruit and train our local workforce and making sure our hospital will continue to have the nurses it needs and our businesses will continue to have the workers they need. Because as the [U.S. Government Accountability Office] report from May stated, guest workers are still a vital part of our economy, and the removal of all guest workers on CW-1 permits will have a drastically negative effect on our economy and our livelihood as a community.”

In a separate interview, Senate President Arnold Palacios said the bill “merely resolved the issue with CHCC, but it doesn’t address the overall issue of the declining numbers of CW’s. FY 2017 is almost done. We have to take everything into consideration now. We have a temporary fix, so we’ll take it from there and continue to work on a long-term solution.”

‘Not enough but a good start’

Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation board chairwoman Lauri Ogumoro said allotting 60 CW permits for healthcare workers in the CNMI is a good start, but it is not enough.

“I am glad they are listening,” she said, referring to the U.S. lawmakers. “But we need, at the very least, three times that number just for the hospital.”

In an earlier interview with Ogumoro, she said they were planning to ask the U.S. Congress to reserve 250 CW slots for nurses and ancillary staff needed by the CNMI’s only hospital.

CHCC plans to seek other U.S. work visas for its nonresident healthcare personnel, but it will cost a lot of money which is why Ogumoro said they will need help from the Legislature.

CHCC board member Leticia Reyes said 60 CW permits will not address the nursing shortage in the CNMI, “but it’s a good start.”

CHCC director of nursing Renea Raho expressed gratitude to Congressman Kilili for working on the bill’s passage.

“It is a big help for us,” Raho said.

CHCC Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna said: “We are very grateful to Congressman Sablan for including the reservation of 60 new permits for healthcare workers and for always prioritizing health.”

Source: Marianas Variety :

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