Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Congressman Gregorio 'Kilili' Camacho Sablan said President Donald J. Trump has signed into law the Northern Mariana Islands Economic Expansion Act.
Sablan introduced the bill earlier this year in response to the crisis caused by Chinese construction companies using up some 4,000 CW permits, forcing nurses and other essential foreign workers to leave the Marianas and hurting local businesses.
“I appreciate that the President signed my bill into law today,” Congressman Sablan said.
Even though Congress is in recess, Sablan was able to get the Northern Mariana Islands Economic Expansion Act passed by the House of Representatives by unanimous consent on August 11 in a special pro forma session.
The bill protects established Marianas businesses that employ CW workers, by barring the use of the limited CW permits for new construction workers.
“Local businesses – or the hospital and clinics – should not have to compete for CW permits with companies employing temporary construction workers,” Sablan said. “There are unlimited H-2B visas available for construction workers to fill temporary needs.And local construction companies with established workers will still be able to renew those workers’ CW permits.”
Addressing the continuing need to bring more U.S. workers into the labor force, the Northern Mariana Islands Economic Expansion Act also puts more money into the training fund for locals seeking jobs. Any employer who hires a foreign worker will now have to pay $200 into the fund, an increase of $50.
“Almost $10 million has been collected so far,” Sablan said, “and, according to the Government Accountability Office testimony at the April hearing on my bill, about $3 million is still available. With 2,400 unemployed residents of the Marianas who are actively looking for work, we should be using that money to help them get the training they need to fill specific jobs in our economy.”
Act includes elements of a long-term solution.Moving foreign workers into other visa categories and getting U.S. workers into jobs are key elements of any long-term solution to Marianas’ need for labor.
Another part of a long-term solution may be a set-aside of foreign workers permits for specific, high-value occupations. The Northern Mariana Islands Economic Expansion Act includes that concept, as well. The Act provides 350 new CW permits for fiscal year 2017 and sets aside at least 60 for health care workers and another 10 for power plant operators.
The set-aside concept was added to the Act by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, after Sablan’s office provided the Committee with data collected from the Commonwealth Health Care Corporation, private health clinics, and the Commonwealth Utilities Corporation, on the numbers of CW workers whose permits would expire on or before the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
CHCC and private clinics reported to the congressional office that a total of 58 health care workers had permits expiring by September 30, 2017; CUC submitted a memo from its Human Resources Manager indicating that 10 CW workers had permits expiring on that date.
Congressman Sablan noted there are 306 CW permits altogether, expiring in August and September. “Those 350 additional permits the Act contains will help some of those workers and their employers,” he said.
“My bill originally asked for 2,002 additional CW permits for the fiscal year, based on the request of Commonwealth officials and local business leaders. But to be effective in Congress, you have to be willing to negotiate and compromise. You have to be able to reach out and communicate with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. And it helps to have actual data to make your case.
“We had a Republican Senator with jurisdiction over my bill who initially opposed any increase at all in CW permits. I showed him the data we collected from the health sector and CUC, and the number of permits we knew would expire by September 30. We discussed the recent GAO report that documents the Commonwealth’s continuing need for workers. In the end, we were able to agree on 350 additional permits for the fiscal year.
“It is important that my legislation—for the first time—increases the total number of allowable CW workers,” Sablan said. “Up until now, the number has only gone down.
“Going forward with any long-term solution, I think we have now achieved recognition of the need for some flexibility, depending on the circumstances, to adjust the number of workers so it meets our economic needs.”