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Temporary Labor Certifications of 18 healthcare workers denied

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DESPITE the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and a nationwide shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers, federal authorities have denied the Temporary Labor Certifications for the CW-1 renewal petitions of 17 licensed practical nurses and one radiologic technologist for the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., CHCC Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna said.

Thirteen of the LPNs work on Saipan while four are assigned to the the Tinian Health Center. The radiologic technologist is employed at the Rota Health Center.

Their CW-1 permits expired on Tuesday, Sept. 15, and they are required to “exit” the CNMI in 10 days.

Muna said at least seven will be “sponsored” by their spouses and can remain in the CNMI, but the other 10 will have to leave.

The healthcare workers’ applications for Temporary Labor Certifications were filed with the U.S. Department of Labor two months ago.

But the applications were denied because of supposed failure on the part of CHCC to “post in two conspicuous areas.”

CHCC filed an appeal on Aug. 21 and 24, 2020.

CHCC public information officer Lee Tenorio said Gov. Ralph DLG Torres also wrote a letter U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia.

In an interview, Muna said she hopes that  USCIS would at least allow all the 18 healthcare workers to remain in the CNMI. “We are in a situation where we know that if they leave, it is going to be a while before they come back,” she added.

Muna said they will also ask the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services if a waiver is possible to allow the healthcare workers to stay in the CNMI.

“Our human resources department is working diligently to make sure that we take care  of these individuals and that includes their exit —  the only alternative at this time,” Tenorio said.

These individuals, he added, are CHCC employees who can use their remaining annual leave while waiting for their papers to be processed.

Muna said the departure of 18 healthcare workers is not right, especially because “we are dealing with a global pandemic, and our resources are already very limited.”

She noted that Guam, like other jurisdictions, needs many healthcare workers and volunteers because of the increasing number of Covid-19 cases.

Muna said CHCC wants to be ready in case there is a spike in new cases.

“We always talk about making sure that we have proper planning and proper resources because we want to make sure that we are ready for it [Covid-19 surge],” she added. 

Permanent status

Muna said most of the affected healthcare workers have been working at CHCC for years.

CHCC is seeking a more permanent status for them. “We have been working on this process for many years, but it is a slow process. Our ultimate goal for all of our staff is that they have permanent status so they don’t have to deal with this. Unfortunately, even in a pandemic, we still have to deal with this situation,” Muna said.

She said CHCC will continue to petition for permanent status for the 18 healthcare workers even if they are off-island. 

She added that 14 of the 18 workers have been approved for an I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers) and are in the process for I-485 or “Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.”

The uncertainty with CW regulations has always been a struggle for CHCC, Muna said. “We have been here before. We don’t want our staff to face this uncertainty all the time.”

She said the affected healthcare workers “feel safer here because of our low number of Covid-19 cases.”

Moreover, if they return to the Philippines, which has imposed travel restrictions,  they could be “stuck” there for months.

There is also a long process involved in the approval of CW-1 permits, and  it includes an interview at the U.S. embassy. The next available schedule for the embassy in Manila is in March 2021, Muna noted.

“If they leave the CNMI, they are going to be gone for quite a while. So we don’t want them to leave,” she said.

Governor’s request

In a letter dated Sept. 14, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres asked U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to prioritize the processing and approval of the CW-1 petitions of  healthcare workers in the CNMI.

“It is essential that we keep our workforce intact during this public health emergency for the safety and well-being of our population,” the governor said.

He specifically asked for the expeditious processing and approval of Temporary Labor Certifications or TLC of the 18 healthcare workers.

He said the CNMI will greatly suffer if CHCC were to lose these critical healthcare workers.

“Even before the pandemic, due to limited resources, and the remote geographical location of the islands, the CNMI has faced historical nursing workforce challenges,” the governor said.

He added that the nursing shortage threatens the health and safety of the CNMI population.

“Reducing reliance on temporary foreign workers has always been a priority of the CHCC leadership,” the governor said. But “if CHCC’s non-citizen employees must leave the country during this pandemic, including those who are close to becoming permanent U.S. residents, our health workforce will be further disadvantaged, and it is unlikely that these valued health workers will be able to return to the CNMI from their home countries in a timely manner due to the travel barriers brought by the pandemic.”

The governor at the same time expressed appreciation to the hard work and dedication of the CNMI’s healthcare and public health workforce.

“The CNMI has demonstrated one of the most successful Covid-19 containment efforts of any U.S. jurisdiction,” Torres said as he commended CHCC, its health workers, the support of other government leaders and the cooperation of the community.

Since identifying the CNMI’s first Covid-19 case in March, Torres said the Commonwealth has been able to contain the spread of the virus while isolating and treating any incoming travelers who test positive at the port of entry.

The CNMI, he added, has tested more than 25% of its residents for the virus.

“With fewer than one daily new case per 100,000, the CNMI has been able to avoid the devastating outbreak that our neighboring island, Guam, has been experiencing with nearly 50 new cases per 100,000 identified each day,” he said.

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