February 23, 2013
On February 19, 2012 a day before the governor resigned he signed H.R. 17-147 that revokes the mandatory requirement that employers must pay 100 percent of foreign employees' medical insurance.
Public Law 17-147 states that the minimum wage increases should be "sufficient for nonresident workers to provide for themselves and pay for their medical coverage as well.”
It is a sad commentary on the CNMI that the legislators claim that removing this benefit from foreign workers will be "fair" for the local and foreign workers. The bill reads, “The removal of the mandated benefits will create fairness for all employees within the Commonwealth, nonresident and resident workers alike.” This bill will not create "fairness."
Fair would be viewing the legal, longterm foreign workers as future citizens or at least upgrading their status to secure their future. Very little about the CNMI foreign worker system, past or present, is "fair", moral or just. In what way is it fair to live and work in a community for 10, 20, 30 years or more and remain a part of the disenfranchised underclass? An employee's status should have been considered in qualifying the "fairness" of removing this important benefit. U.S. citizen workers who cannot afford health insurance are covered by Medicaid and qualify for other U.S. programs such as food stamps. Foreign workers do not qualify for such programs.
An hourly wage of $5.55 does not even provide a decent quality of life. The CNMI has the highest utility rates on U.S. soil, ridiculously high food costs and gas is expensive as well. No nonresident worker making $5.55 an hour can afford health insurance or afford to pay for health care costs on a $5.55 hourly rate.
In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama called for raising the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour:
"We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, nineteen states have chosen to bump theirs even higher. "
Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. So here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.Of course, President Obama was talking about the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour as being an unacceptable poverty level wage. It is. But the CNMI's minimum wage of $5.50 is even worse and every time it is set to raise by $.50, the CNMI businesses and elected officials urge the U.S. Congress not to raise it.
At the CNMI's minimum wage level of $5.50 an hour a worker would earn only $11.440 annually if he worked 40 hours a week for 52 weeks. We all know that most CNMI workers work less than 40 hours a week and many also make less than $5.50 hourly. The many victims of wage theft make even less.
What do the legislators and governor who signed this bill want the foreign workers to give up to be able to afford health insurance or afford to seek medical care? Food, clothing, utilities, rent? This hourly wage does not even afford them the bare necessities. These legislators and former governor who think this bill is "fair" should try to live on the $5.50 hourly minimum wage for a year and experience the "fairness" for themselves.
Health care is a human right as stated in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It is sad that it will be just one more right that will be out of reach for the vast majority of the CNMI's nonresident workers.
With this bill the Commonwealth Health Center can expect to see an increase in indigent patients seeking emergency care. The CNMI should brace for an increase in contagious diseases and illness.