Business group hopeful for draft NMI workforce bill

NORTHERN Marianas Business Alliance Corporation chairman Alex Sablan on Tuesday said staffers of a key U.S. senator have assured them that a bill will be introduced in the U.S. Congress to address the islands’ worsening workforce crisis.

In his remarks to the Rotary Club of Saipan on Tuesday, Sablan said he and the other members of NMBAC met with staff members of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Washington, D.C.

Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairs the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee which has jurisdiction over the CNMI and other insular areas.

“Her [Murkowshi] committee staffers have committed themselves to getting [the draft bill] ready within the first quarter of this calendar year,” Sablan told the Rotarians.

“Knock on wood, we hope that we can get something done by August before the next fiscal year and the number of CW permits drops to 4,998,” he said. The FY 2017 CW cap was 12,998. This was reduced to 9,998 in FY 2018.

Sablan said if they don’t get a draft bill early this year and it is not passed within this fiscal year, the CNMI economy will be severely affected.

He said if there is still no U.S. congressional relief by August, “we believe it’s all over — we will lose momentum and the investments that are being proposed.”

According to Sablan, having an adequate workforce creates new job opportunities for locals and other U.S. citizens.

“All we are asking is to have a workforce to maintain our momentum, and to keep the economy going.”

USCIS’ decision to reduce the CW cap by 3,000 in FY 2018 is already having an impact, he added.

“It is being felt by many businesses, many of which are now wondering whether they can continue operating,” Sablan said.

The CNMI, he added, must continue educating federal officials about what is actually happening here, and how the reduction in CWs will also reduce the number of U.S. workers.

In the meantime, he said businesses with CWs who can be hired through another U.S. visa should start submitting the required applications.

Sablan said some federal officials “want to see people that can be transitioned to alternate visas, so that move needs to happen now.”

He reiterated, however, that based on the CNMI’s current conditions, the H-2B visa program may not apply here.

He said Guam, there has been experiencing a 100 percent denial on H-2B visa applications.

“They deemed that those applicants are not temporary but permanent,” he added.

“The H-2B program is project-specific, time-specific and for seasonal work — meaning if you build a new hotel on this island, you bring those workers in and once the project is done they leave.

“It can’t work here because our workers in the CW program are not temporary and are needed day in and day out.”

Sablan said they have no “plan B” because there is no other way to replace the current 12,998 workers in the commonwealth as soon as possible.

He noted that their business group, the NMBAC, represents 25 percent of the companies in the commonwealth and only 25 percent of the CW numbers.

Sablan said 75 percent of the CWs are employed by small and medium-size businesses in the commonwealth.

The business community, he added, represents 70 percent of the total revenue base of the commonwealth government.

“So what we are doing is trying to represent the community as a whole and get the people in D.C. to understand that without a workforce, the momentum of our economy will not continue.”

Source: Marianas Variety :

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