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US public hearing on CW bill set for Feb. 6

GOVERNOR Ralph D.L.G. Torres said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski has informed him that a hearing will be conducted on Feb. 6, 2018 on the new CW bill introduced in the U.S. Congress on Friday.

Torres thanked Murkowski for her collaboration on the bill: the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act.

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Murkowski, R-Alaska and chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, introduced the bill, S.2325, in the U.S. Senate while U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, Ind.-MP, introduced it as H.R. 4869 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill extends the federal CW permit program through 2029 and aims to “further strengthen ongoing local initiatives to develop the CNMI’s U.S. workforce.”

In a statement, the administration said discussions between Governor Torres and congressional leaders in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate about a long-term solution to workforce issues began as early as June 2016 through the Section 902 consultations between the CNMI and the U.S.

The consultations resulted in the first report approved by both the CNMI and the White House, a report which was transmitted to Congress in January 2017, the administration said.

It added that Murkowski created the congressional working group in July 2017 to initiate discussions on Torres’s recommendations with respect to legislation that would develop the U.S. workforce substantially over time, secure the CNMI’s ability to grow its economy, and ensure that legacy foreign workers will not be capped out during the annual renewal process.

According to the administration, the governor followed this up by several meetings with federal officials from the White House, key departments and agencies, and the U.S. Congress.

“The announcement of the reduced numerical CW cap from 12,998 to 9,998 for FY 2018 in late November further indicated the need for a long-term legislative fix soon,” the administration said.

In Dec. 2017, Torres and members of the Northern Marianas Business Alliance met with Senator Murkowski, Congressman Kilili, and members of the working group to help move the bill further, the administration added.

“Following these meetings, Governor Torres has worked closely as a member of the working group, the result being the introduction of the official bill on Friday,” the administration stated.

In a statement, Torres said: “Senator Murkowski has been very gracious with my staff and I on this particular bill, dating as far back as June 2016 when we had our 902 consultations. I thank her and all the members of her working group for their collaboration. I especially want to thank her for holding off on the introduction of the bill until after I provided my input on the draft. I am glad that the bill was able to include some of my recommendations, such as extending the program to 2029, instead of 2024 as previously drafted and eliminating the Guam reference on minimum wage.”

Torres added that Murkowski informed him of the hearing on the bill scheduled for Feb. 6, 2018, in which further discussions will allow for more additions to the bill about the CNMI’s economic needs and its commitment to increasing its U.S. workforce.

Recommendations

“We still have additional recommendations that are being considered and negotiated with the Senate, so the bill remains a solid working document as we move forward,” the governor said.

“These recommendations include increasing the number of permits to 15,000 to allow commonwealth employers to sustain newfound growth in the near term, amending the construction ban to ensure that not only our legacy workers, but also our general maintenance workers are no longer denied renewals, and having CW-3 permits include CW permits since the 2017 fiscal year instead of the 2014 fiscal year. We will also request access to all federal workforce, education, and training programs in order to effectively fulfill our goal of developing a U.S. workforce in line with the legislation’s goals and access to data from all federal agencies.”

Torres added, “We are very pleased in what we have been able to accomplish together so far. It is through discussions with everyone in our community — the people in our villages who are actively trying to find jobs in our growing economy, our small local businesses that have to make difficult choices, and families and friends that have been affected by the reduction that has already taken place. We will continue to make sure that every able-bodied and willing local worker on island has access to a job in order to be self-sufficient, and we will continue to work towards saving our economy because it provides more opportunities for everyone to succeed as it grows. As we continue to work on this federal issue, I will keep you, our community, informed.”

CNMI champion

In a separate statement, the Northern Marianas Business Alliance thanked Murkowski “for her leadership in advocating for the CNMI,” saying without her strong support for the commonwealth, “the islands would be in danger of losing all the economic momentum that business and CNMI leaders have all worked so hard for over the last several years.”

The business group said in Senator Murkowski, “we have a champion working hard for our cause to find a solution to the workforce problems we face. We also want to acknowledge Gov. Ralph Torres, the CNMI House and Senate, the mayors of Rota, Saipan, and Tinian, business and community leaders, who provided much needed support and input into the NMBAC legislative proposal last summer, and Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan.”

The NMBAC said it “organized last year to support the process with our legislative recommendations that helped to craft this important bill. We are deeply thankful for Governor Torres for meeting with elected leaders, including the Trump administration and Senator Murkowski, bringing NMBAC to the table while also advocating for the concerns of the business community.”

The business group also thanked Congressman Kilili. It said its officers came back from Washington, D.C. “with a renewed optimism that the proactive efforts of the CNMI business community to actively recruit, train, and promote U.S. eligible workers was recognized by the key stakeholders in the U.S.”

Leadership

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Angel Demapan, a member of the CNMI 902 team, also commended Murkowski and the governor “for his leadership in making sure that things move forward for the CNMI and that the economic growth that the island is now experiencing will continue with the extension of the CW program.”

Demapan said he “must commend the work of Governor Torres and our business community, through the Northern Marianas Business Alliance Corporation, during their visit to Washington in December to help influence the movement of the legislation.”

He added, “My conversations with stakeholders indicate that the bill still needs some work, and I look forward to working with Governor Torres in providing feedback to improve the bill further. The proposed cap will allow us to maintain what we have now, but I’m afraid it will not allow our economy to grow. We also need to continue discussions regarding construction workers as this policy impacts not just business developments, but also the construction of roads, homes, schools and churches.”

Agreement

On Saturday morning, Congressman Kilili said he had reached an agreement with Murkowski and other leading members of the U.S. Congress on a CW bill.

He said the legislation will give the Northern Marianas access to foreign labor for another 10 years and continues the trend to increase the number of local workers.

In a statement, Kilili said he has been working with Murkowski since July 2017 on this long-term solution.

According to Kilili’s office, Murkowski formed a working group to draft the new policy, with Sablan and key Republicans and Democrats from the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House to help ensure success of the legislation.

Kilili issued the following statement:

“I thank Chair Murkowski and all the members of the working group. We have put in many long hours of discussion in person, on the phone, and by e-mail to reach this point of agreement.

“When we started, there were some in Washington who said ‘no extension.’ So, we have come a long way.

“We now have a solid foundation for a long-term labor policy for the Northern Mariana Islands. I am sure that there will be more fine-tuning in the days ahead, as we work for passage.”

Legislation reflects many months of constituent listening sessions

Congressman Sablan held extensive listening sessions over the last year with his constituents, including business people, workers, federal enforcement agents, and commonwealth government officials. The legislation introduced Friday meets the major goals identified in those listening sessions.

The legislation continues for another 10 years, until 2029, special access to foreign workers for the Marianas economy.

It allows an increase in the number of CW permits to 13,000 beginning in fiscal year 2019 — 3,001 over the current cap. This would override the cap of 4,999 that the Department of Homeland Security announced for next year.

In addition to the CW permit program, by extending the transition period the Sablan/Murkowski bill also extends the current E-2C visa for investors who came in under CNMI immigration law. It extends the exemption from the national cap on H visas for temporary workers. And it extends the bar on claims of asylum, which is the underpinning for Chinese tourism to the Marianas.

The bill also provides a new permit system for foreign workers who have been in the Marianas for the last five years. Instead of annual renewal, the new CW-3 category will be good for three years. And CW-3 permits will be renewable for three years after the worker “touches back” in their home country for 30 days.

“The CW-3 permit will give our local businesses that have legacy workers more certainty year-in and year-out and reduce business costs. However, business will still be required to pay annually into the training fund for local workers.

“The CW-3 permit will also provide a more stable situation for foreign workers and their families, who have become part of our community,” Congressman Kilili said.

Placing local workers into jobs

“The bill is also good for local workers,” Sablan explained. “We called it the U.S. Workforce Act, because the primary purpose is really to increase the number of Americans with jobs. And there are a number of incentives in the bill to encourage that.”

One of the main changes to the present system is a requirement that the commonwealth government report annually on how many domestic workers have jobs.

Gov. Ralph D.L.G. Torres emphasized the importance of this in his testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last year in support of Sablan’s bill that became Public Law 115-53. “[T]oday the CNMI can boast the highest ratio of domestic to foreign workers since the beginning of our modern economy in 1990,” the governor reported to Murkowski’s committee.

To encourage that trend to continue, the Sablan/Murkowski bill will require employers to get a foreign labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor. This ensures that no local worker is passed over or pushed out of a job by a foreign worker.

The bill also provides for a targeted use of the training fund that employers pay into, and establishes goals for how many local workers will get jobs as a result of the training fee. As of Dec. 31, the commonwealth has received $12.1 million in fees to train local workers for jobs in the Marianas economy.

And the Sablan/Murkowski bill reduces the number of CW permits available by 500 every year.

“We want to continue the transition to a U.S. workforce that the Governor pointed to,” said Congressman Sablan. “And we want to take away the uncertainty and anxiety that occurs every year before the Department of Homeland Security announces what the cap will be.”

‘Ghost permits’ blocked — cause of recent denials

Sablan and Murkowski also take aim at “ghost permits,” the likely reason for the high number of CW applications now being rejected.

“Businesses that get hundreds of permits and then fail to put people to work, or in some cases try to sell permits overseas, are a probable cause of so many of the denials that we are seeing in real time,” Sablan said.

“Our bill requires all businesses to prove they are actively using their CW permits. If not, they lose them,” Sablan said.

“And those permits will go back into the annual pool, so that legitimate businesses can have them instead.”

All in all, Congressman Sablan said he thinks that the input of so many people in the Marianas was key to getting Friday’s legislation written. “Of course, as in any negotiation, there is give and take. We did not get everything we wanted.

“But, on the whole, I think we have a good bill that protects the Marianas economy, protects local workers, and gives all of us a greater sense of certainty about the future.

“Now, we just have to get it passed in Congress and signed by the president. There is more work ahead, but I continue to be confident that we can get this done.”

Source: Marianas Variety : http://www.mvariety.com/cnmi/cnmi-news/local/101669-us-public-hearing-on-cw-bill-set-for-feb-6

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