The Deputy Secretary of the CNMI Department of Labor has issued this press release:
CONTACT: Cinta M. Kaipat, Deputy Secretary October 16, 2008
The fact that the CNMI Department of Labor even accumulated a backlog of almost 5,000 labor cases is incredible. It is incredible that a government agency would think that it is acceptable that a foreign contract worker should wait months and even years to have their labor case finalized, especially since many, if not most, of the employees with labor cases have no income to support themselves while they wait. It is incredible that this agency does not enforce its own administrative orders and workers who are owed back wages are expected to collect their own unpaid judgments from small claims court or by hiring attorneys. It is incredible that the CNMI Department of Labor does not go after the bonding companies that are responsible to pay workers back wages or other monetary judgments when employers default on the administrative orders. The Department of Labor is dysfunctional and has failed repeatedly to enforce the laws taking no action to collect money owed to workers.
LABOR ANNOUNCES COMPLETION OF CASE BACKLOG PROJECT
The Department of Labor announced yesterday that it had completed a 24-month project to clean up all pending labor cases and agency cases from the years 1997 through 2007. "We completed the adjudication and closure of 4,968 cases," Deputy Secretary Jacinta M. Kaipat reported. "We started this project in October 2006 and we finished at the end of September 2008, just as we said we would," she said.
The project covered labor cases, in which individuals bring complaints to the Labor Department, usually about unpaid wages or overtime, and also covered agency cases in which the Department itself brings a case against an employer, usually about company-wide practices. Because the Department has very limited manpower and was swamped with cases, it could not make much progress with the backlog in 2006.
"We recruited Deanne Siemer to help us in October 2006. She is a very experienced trial lawyer and has served as a judge and mediator in many complex cases in the United States. We asked her whether we could conceivably clean up all the cases that had built up over the years," Kaipat said. "Deanne told us this could be done with a crew of experienced, trained, temporary paralegals, so we authorized her to recruit those people to help. Ultimately, she recruited four people, all of whom are locals," Kaipat said.
"Deanne contributed her time without any pay or per diem of any kind, and we paid the paralegals at the U.S. minimum wage or more, depending on their level of experience. Each of the paralegals had their own business, so they worked on a temporary basis as independent contractors," Kaipat explained. "We are very grateful to Sarah Blalock, Josephine Kapileo, Khris Dela Paz, and Tara Aldan who were tremendously efficient."
The Department reported to the Secretary of Finance that it spent $7.25 per case for the entire handling from start to finish of each of the 4,968 cases by the paralegal team. It also spent $1.90 per case for advertising the notices of hearing, the issuance of orders, and the closure of cases so that each party would have adequate published notice of the status of each case. "We spent a total of $36,012 on the temporary paralegal services for all these cases, and we spent a total of $9,450 for advertising and supplies," Kaipat reported. "This was a very cost-effective project," she said. "We finished the job on time and within budget."
"In order to complete this project on time, Deanne advanced her own funds to pay the paralegals on a current basis, so they would not have to wait for the Commonwealth's procurement process to grind to a conclusion on their invoices," Kaipat said. "They are small businesses, and they need to be paid promptly. Deanne then invoiced the Government for the amounts she had advanced." The Department reported that the Commonwealth has now paid Siemer's invoices for the amounts she advanced to the paralegals and for advertising, so the project is completed.
The Department has nine remaining cases from the year 2007 to be heard. "These are mostly cases where hearings had to be rescheduled because of lawyers' conflicts with other hearings or obligations. They are all on the Hearing Office calendar to be completed by the end of November," Kaipat explained. The Department also has six opinions remaining to be issued from cases filed in 2007 and prior years that have already been heard. "We expect to have all these opinions issued by the end of October," Kaipat said. "We are almost completely current, dealing now only with mostly 2008 cases. The processing of the 2008 cases is going very well."
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No labor case is ever settled or closed until the judgments are honored. As long as there are millions of dollars in unpaid judgments, then the cases are not resolved; they are not closed. Paper orders and judgments mean nothing to workers waiting to receive the money that is owed to them. Until the money is in the pockets of the workers that are holding administrative orders with unpaid judgments, the backlog will always remain. There is a backlog of justice –over $6.1 million documented, and in reality the figure is much higher because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of workers who have been repatriated with empty pockets over the years.
A guest worker called me last week very upset. He wants to go home to his country. He has no money, food, and no prospects for employment. His employer refused to pay for his ticket. He went to the CNMI Department of Labor and was told that DOL has no money to repatriate him. Astoundingly, his is not the only case I have heard of in recent days. It was also reported to me that another worker with heart disease has been going to the Department of Labor requesting a ticket and has been repeatedly refused one because the department has no money for a ticket.
I would like the Department of Labor to comment on this. Have they gone after employers who refuse to provide tickets home as is required by law? Have they gone after bonding companies? Do they expect hungry and desperate guest workers to enforce the laws of the CNMI? I would like to know if it is true that the department has no money, because if it is I will immediately contact U.S. officials and seek emergency repatriation funds.
If any guest worker has an unpaid judgment from an administrative order that has been issued within 6 years from September 30, 2008, they can join a class action lawsuit being filed against the CNMI Department of Labor. Guest workers can meet with Attorney Robert H. Meyers at his office at the Summer Holiday Hotel in Garapan. The attorney can also be contacted at: Lwyr4u@gmail.com or 483-5997. Workers can also meet at Winchells in Garpan with Irene Tantiado to gain more information about the lawsuit. She will be meeting with workers from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. each evening until Sunday.