Murkowski: Goal is to increase number of US workers in NMI

AT the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Tuesday, on S.2325 or the Northern Marianas U.S. Workforce Act, policies to protect   workers and reduce the islands’ reliance on foreign workers were discussed.

The committee chair and author of the bill, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said it aims to ensure that U.S. workers in the CNMI are not put at a competitive disadvantage by foreign labor.

“To that end, our legislation requires a U.S. Department of Labor certification on foreign worker needs and requires that the employer pay a CW worker the highest prevailing wage. The bill also creates a new CW-3 permit category for long-term foreign workers who have been working in the CNMI under a CW permit since 2014. And it gives the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to revoke an issued permit if it is not being used, or if the employer has violated federal labor laws,” said Murkowski, R-Alaska.

She said the timing of her bill is significant as submissions for new CW applications for fiscal year 2019 will begin in the next few weeks.

“While I do believe we have a good product in front of us, I welcome suggestions on how to improve it. I do want to emphasize, however, that while I am willing to support extending the transition period, I remain committed to the intent of the transition, which is to increase the number of U.S. workers in the CNMI economy while reducing the dependence on foreign labor,” the senator reiterated.

Gov. Ralph Torres and U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Sablan, who both testified in support of the bill’s passage, were questioned by members of the committee.

Torres was asked by the committee’s top Democrat, Maria Cantwell of Washington state, about the lobbyist who is asking the U.S. Treasury not to enforce the money-laundering penalty on Tinian Dynasty.

The governor said he was not aware of the issue, adding that his administration did not hire the lobbyist. He promised to get back to the senator with more information.

“We don’t want to see the Marianas trying to get the Treasury not to enforce the law,” Cantwell said. “We need to, as you said in the last hearing…keep moving forward on this issue,” Cantwell told Torres.

The governor said the issues in the recent past about workers at the Saipan casino construction site were taken seriously and have been addressed by his administration working collaboratively with federal and local agencies, adding that the CNMI will ensure that gaming and other regulations are in place and that employers are required to follow the law.

“We continue to work with our federal agencies [and] I am proud to announce that…a U.S. contractor will finish the hotel-casino project. [Imperial Pacific International] will hire U.S. construction workers to continue the construction of the casino hotel,” Torres said.

He added that through the Department of Labor, employers in the CNMI are mandated to make sure that their workers are hired legally.

Torres was asked about the challenges of hiring or recruiting American workers by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada.

The governor said Imperial Pacific International managed to hire 147 of its 1,500 target employees when it started the project.

He said IPI traveled as far as Nevada, New Jersey and other states to recruit U.S. workers, but 90 percent of them left after six months when the island was hit by Typhoon Soudelor in Aug. 2015.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, asked Congressman Sablan what else the CNMI needs for its residents.

Sablan responded that the CNMI still needs the federal CW program. “We do need this extension and the reduction [of CWs] on an annual basis and we do need to get U.S. workers into the workforce. We have had an increase of U.S. workers over the past three years and the [possible] termination of this program…has forced employers to get U.S. workers and train them, and that’s the intention of this law, to train U.S. workers. This statement that ‘we can’t find U.S. workers’ needs to stop — we need it to stop now and this bill will spur us to create a Northern Marianas economy with U.S. workers as the main workers and foreign workers to fill the gaps only when there are no U.S. workers,” Sablan said.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, asked Torres about the actions taken “to ensure past mistakes will not be repeated,” referring to unfair labor practices or abuses.

The governor said they have been working closely with enforcement agencies to make sure workers are protected and the laws are enforced.

In his written testimony, Torres said a survey projected that there are an estimated 1,800 U.S. citizens in the islands “who could be potentially classified as ‘unemployed.’ ”

He said “while 1,800 is a relatively small number, it is my hope we can lower this number. To do so, we have instituted the strictest work requirements on food-stamp recipients in the nation, we have promoted government-sponsored job fairs and continue to allocate local dollars to training institutions and programs. We have targeted issues that are affecting U.S. citizen employment, starting the first CNMI Drug Court and Drug Rehabilitation Outpatient facility, and are working toward the implementation of the CNMI’s first public transit system to alleviate the transportation issues that are preventing individuals from obtaining jobs. We are experimenting, innovating, and reaching out with local funds to bring more U.S. citizens into jobs and we can do so with our growing economy.”

The governor added, “The issues underlying this transition period are complex, and have developed over decades, even prior to the CNMI joining the American community. We have made great progress toward being responsible partners and are willing to continue our efforts to build a sustainable and vibrant economy in the far reaches of the Pacific that proudly flies the American flag.”

Source: Marianas Variety :

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