Northern Mariana Islands look to Congress to increase domestic workforce

by | Feb 15, 2018 | Congress | Comments

After less than a month since being introduced, the US Workforce Act received its time in the spotlight during a hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Delegate of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gregorio Sablan sponsored the bill, and introduced it with Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska on January 19, 2018. Both had conducted months of research and drafting with a bipartisan congressional working group. On February 9, the Senate hearing was held.

The bill was created to support local businesses and workers in the Marianas – as well as a reaction to the decrease of US workers on the islands. At the moment, the percentage of US workers in the Marianas has gone down, according to analysis from the Government Accountability Office.

Sablan told the committee that the bill would “spur us into getting a Northern Marianas economy that would have US workers as the main workforce. Third country nationals would come in to fill the gaps, where there are really no US workers.”

The three main, broad goals are to increase US workers into the economy, make it more attractive for employers to hire US workers and to protect US workers from being pushed aside by foreign workers. It also has a fourth goal of broadening the Commonwealth program by 10 years and adding a transition period from the CW program– part of a resolution from the Commonwealth Legislature that passed in December 2017 – and also adds 8,000 extra CW permits for the upcoming year.

During the hearing on February 9, Senators praised both Murkowski and Sablan for the bipartisanship throughout the committee process, as well as questioned witnesses on the labor conditions in the Marianas. Sablan submitted record statements of support for the Act from a variety of people – including Mariana’s constituents, Saipan Chamber of Commerce President Velma Palacios, IT&E chief executive officer James Ohlerking, Hyatt Regency Saipan general manager Nick Nishikawa, to name a few.

If passed, the bill will require employers to get a foreign labor certification from the US Department of Labor before they even apply to work in the Marianas. The US Department in Labor would in turn have to ensure that no US worker is able, willing and qualified for the job being offered. They must also certify that hiring the CW worker will not bring down the wages for US workers.

It will also allow the Commonwealth governor a new advisory role in allocating permits – if needed, the governor would be able to recommend that permits be set aside.

It would also extend key policies of the CW transition program: the exemption for the Marianas from the nationwide cap on H visas, the E-2C visa for foreign business people invested in the Marianas before the enactment of US Public Law 110-229, and the bar on claims of asylum in the Marianas.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington said during the hearing on February 9 that the bill “effectively promotes continued economic growth for the Marianas, but also imposes additional safeguards to make sure that protections are in place for workers.”

A hearing in the House Committee on Natural Resources is soon to be expected.