July 26, 2013
Yet, just months ago, DOI made the hasty and irresponsible decision to close the Federal Ombudsman Office in September 2013. The decision was made without consulting any other federal agencies, the Ombudsman Office itself, any of the 12,000 nonresidents who will be negatively impacted by the closure, or the Obama Administration that had already set aside FY2014 funding to keep the office open.
What was the real reason for the closure? Who in OIA actually made this decision?
It is obvious that the DOI Office of Insular Affairs has a limited understanding of the duties and functions of the Ombudsman Office, and is not very sympathetic to the plight and problems of the CNMI's nonresident population or it never would have closed the office.
Unanswered Letters, Unanswered Questions
Senator Ron Wyden (D-CO) and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) sent letters to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell protesting the closure of the office. Both pointed out that the funding was already in place for FY2014. Wyden requested that DOI answer 13 questions concerning the closure and respond by June 31, 2013. However, Secretary Jewell still has not responded to the questions. (Read, Senator Wyden Protests the Closing of the Ombudsman Office and House Member Joins Senator in Decrying Closure of Ombudsman Office for more information on the letters and congressional reaction.)
Obviously, Secretary Jewell failed to respond to Senator Wyden and Congressman Miller because she has no clue about the function of the office, does not understand the situation of the CNMI's nonresidents and cannot answer the 13 questions about the closure. After all, she just recently stepped into her job as secretary. The responsibility for responding to questions about the office's closure and the damage that is sure to result, falls upon the decision-makers in the Office of Insular Affairs.
OIA's Acting Assistant Secretary Eileen Sobeck is currently in Saipan. Apparently Sobeck's agenda for her Saipan trip includes getting the answers to Senator Wyden's questions and scrambling to establish a plan for the closure of the office. During the last several days, Sobeck has reportedly been meeting with the ombudsman, office staff and some of the leaders of the nonresident worker groups.
It appears that until now, OIA has not even made plans to shift the workload of the Ombudsman Office to other federal agencies as OIA and supporters of the closure, including Delegate Sablan and Governor Inos, have claimed is the plan. Only now, two months before the office closes, is there an investigation to determine how, and if, the U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security can pick up the duties that the ombudsman has carried out for the last 14 years. Those of us who have worked closely with the federal Ombudsman Office over the last fourteen years know that other federal agencies cannot pick up the workload and are unable to handle the sensitive issues that this office oversees.
Reporter Haidee Eugenio from The Saipan Tribune reported:
Interior, in responding to Saipan Tribune questions, said yesterday that “Sobeck’s trip to the CNMI is, in part, for her to assess what’s needed as part of the transition and what responsibilities and functions will be absorbed in the absence of the ombudsman’s office, among other things.”
“Those details are not available at this time,” the Interior statement said.It seems that "those details are not available" because Sobeck is still figuring them out at this late date. Sobecks's response reminds me of the way the U.S. Department of Homeland Security USCIS went about instituting the CNMI's federal transitional guest worker program. They used the "plan as you go" model. Unfortunately, we have all seen the problems that have come about because of DHS's lack of planning, and lack of sufficient personnel on the ground.
DOI's lack of urgency and response to the protests from advocates, nonresidents and members of Congress is alarming.
OIA Not Paying Its Own Employees!
Perhaps even more alarming was the rumor I heard that two translators in the Ombudsman Office have not been paid for almost six months! I have just confirmed that the rumor is true.
Of course it is Saturday in the CNMI and the Ombudsman Office is closed. I emailed Acting Assistant Secretary Sobeck to ask her to explain why the OIA is not paying these employees, which is a violation of federal law. I also called the Office of Insular Affairs in Washington, DC this morning to ask for an explanation, but I was told that the director was in a meeting and I have not heard back.
The employees should file a case with the U.S. Department of Labor. In fact, this could be a good test case to see how U.S. DOL handles complaints from the Ombudsman Office.
Alarming, and more than a little ironic. This is yet another example that something is not right with the Office of Insular Affairs.
Federal Agencies in the CNMI are Understaffed and Underfunded
Does anyone seriously believe that the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be able to assist hundreds of nonresident workers with concerns regarding their unpaid wages, abuses, human trafficking, rapes, assaults, and a myriad of other complaints that the Ombudsman Office has routinely managed?
The U.S. DOL's Wage and Hour Division only has authority over businesses which earn over $500,000 annually. Many of the nonresident workers are employed by CNMI employers whose small businesses are not covered by federal wage and hour laws. What help will DOL be able to provide for them? Will they write letters for the cheaters workers and followup as the Ombudsman Office did? Will they go after their employers to see that they are paid? I seriously doubt that they can assist except where they are allowed to do under federal laws.
Right now there are domestic workers in the CNMI who are owed back wages and filed complaints. What has U.S. DOL done to assist them? Where do their cases stand?
The U.S. DOLWage and Hour Division is aware that the nonresident workers at the Tinian Dynasty Hotel have complained for over 8 years concerning unpaid wages. Action is taken and then the hotel continues to violate labor laws and cheat the employees. Currently, Tinian Dynasty workers are owed weeks of back wages. What is U.S. DOL doing about this?
Nonresident workers have also expressed concerns about the U.S. DOL being capable of taking over responsibilities of the Ombudsman Office. Haidee Eugenio from The Saipan Tribune reported:
Workers urged acting U.S. Interior assistant secretary Eileen Sobeck Wednesday night to help extend the Federal Labor Ombudsman’s Office’s operations in the CNMI beyond Sept. 30 or, in the alternative, ensure that other entities absorbing the ombudsman’s office functions will give “fair treatment” to those seeking help over unpaid wages and related labor issues.
This comes amid worker groups’ concern that a U.S. Labor Wage and Hour Division employee on Saipan has been improperly siding with employers who do not pay their workers properly, even before reviewing the workers’ specific complaints.These allegations should be investigated. They also point out why an independent office is needed to address the concerns and complaints of the nonresidents.
Office of Insular Affairs Needs a Makeover
Soon a new Assistant Secretary will be appointed to the Office of Insular Affairs to replace Tony Babauta who resigned earlier this year. Hopefully, that person will be knowledgeable about the territories' concerns and needs. The OIA needs a person who will once again uphold the rights of the CNMI nonresident workers, someone who will step up and take the time to research and respond appropriately to the issues of the CNMI's disenfranchised, underclass of legal, long-term nonresidents.
My fear is that the legitimate concerns of the nonresidents are being dismissed as insignificant or that OIA is listening to those who falsely claim that there are no longer many cases of nonresident abuses that need attention. I would hate to see the return of international headlines highlighting the failure of the U.S. Government to address rampant cases of human rights and labor abuses in the CNMI, as was the case before the opening of the Federal Ombudsman Office. The OIA needs to ensure that the dark era that scarred the reputation of the U.S. does not repeat ever again.
There needs to be strong leadership in the Office of Insular Affairs and a staff that is qualified to make wise decisions that will impact not just the territories, but the reputation of the United States.