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US Workforce Act authors weigh in on ‘touchback’

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(Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) — Marianas businesses were intended to have flexibility when to send CW-1 workers home for a 30-day “touchback,” according to U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan and the other authors of the Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Workforce Act.

Sablan, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, who each chair the committees with responsibility for the insular areas in the Senate and House, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, jointly submitted an explanation of their intent to the Department of Homeland Security this week as part of the formal comment process on regulations governing the Act.

The U.S. Workforce Act, Public Law 115-218, says the employer of a CW-1 worker, who has been in the Marianas for three years, may not apply for a fourth, one-year work permit, until the worker has been outside of the United States for a 30-day period. But the Interim Final Rule, Homeland Security issued last month, is unclear on the timing of that “touchback.”

The members of Congress, who wrote the legislation, wanted their intention to be well understood that touchback could occur at any time before submission of an application for a fourth year, “to fit the touchback period into the business cycle in a manner that best meets their human resource needs.”

At the same time, the law’s authors renewed their commitment to U.S. workers in the Marianas. The touchback provision “was intended to emphasize to employers the temporary nature of the Commonwealth-Only Transitional Worker or CW program and further encourage that they hire U.S. workers, which is the underlying aim of the USWA,” the legislators wrote in their comment.

Congressman Sablan said he appreciated the continuing partnership of members of the bipartisan, bicameral working group that he had formed to draft the U.S. Workforce Act in 2017, as the CW program neared its end. The Workforce Act increased the number of CW permits and extended the CW program from 2019 through 2030 with a specific reduction in the number of permits each year.

The law required that Homeland Security issue regulations by January 2019, but the Department missed that deadline. As a result, many of the protections for U.S. workers against competition from CW workers and unfair business practices by employers have been delayed.

The legislators’ comment and comments submitted by other parties will be publicly available at regulations.gov under docket number USCIS-2019-0003.

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