HAGÅTÑA — In the summer of last year, Capt. Stephanie Jones, commanding officer of Naval Engineering Facilities Command Marianas, announced that the Department of the Navy was planning to embark on at least 42 projects by 2021.
“Expect a lot of jobs,” Jones told the Guam Contractors Association.
She said the labor demand is expected to increase to about 7,000 by 2021 and average salaries related to the construction phase and military operation phase of the buildup are expected to be considerably higher than the median Guam salary in 2012.
The numbers looked good, but the promising scenario does not correspond to the current labor situation on Guam, where local industries are dealing with a manpower black hole.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ rampant denials of H-2B visa renewal are taking their toll on Guam’s healthcare and construction industries, where positions are mostly filled with Asian workers.
This week, Core Tech International Corp. will send home more than 380 H-2B workers, whose visa extensions and renewals were denied by USCIS.
A number of major construction projects are in the pipeline. On the military side, the bulk of the appropriation under the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act is for the $125.68 million live-fire training range complex project in the Northwest Field of Andersen Air Force Base. Another $45 million is allotted for sewer recapitalization for the Navy on island, $34 million for repair and corrosion control for the Air Force and $10 million for municipal solid waste landfill closure for the Navy.
On the civilian side, the Guam Waterworks Authority is getting ready to solicit proposals for water and water-treatment projects worth $55.30 million. In the private sector, several new hotel projects have either started or are now shovel-ready.
While Guam is not unfamiliar with labor shortages, this year has been particularly challenging.
The federal government has set a nationwide hiring quota of 66,000 H-2B workers a year, but Guam was previously exempted from the cap because of its limited pool of skilled workers.
Guam relies heavily on offshore recruitment, specifically the Philippines, for its manpower supply.
However, since December 2015, there have been no approvals and slow movement with new H-2B petitions. According to the local labor department’s recent reports, 19 employers have had 515 worker applications denied and 34 employers have 1,866 positions pending possible denial through the request-for-evidence process.
According to Guam labor officials, 99.9 percent of the H-2B applications filed by local businesses since January have been rejected by the USCIS.
The visa situation is also taking its toll on the otherwise expanding healthcare industry.
Earlier this year, the Guam Regional Medical City — the only private hospital on island — was forced to trim its operations and shut down some of its departments due to an acute nursing shortage. In May, the nursing shortage forced the GRMC to reduce the number of available beds from 57 to 42 after losing 50 specialty nurses whose H-2B visa renewal applications were denied by USCIS.
According to the GRMC, from a little more than 200 in January, the number of nurses has gone down to 159 because those who left the island upon expiration of their visas were unable to return to Guam. The hospital was prompted to delay its original plan to expand with 200 beds before the end of the year and, at one point, it was forced to temporarily shut down its pediatric department.
The visa situation is equally problematic for the construction sector, which is mostly dependent on skilled foreign workers to pick up the jobs generated by the military buildup. “Unless the federal government eases its nearly 100 percent denial for the foreign labor petitions for H-2B visas, work to build our economy, upgrade utilities infrastructure and prepare Guam for the buildup on Guam could stall,” Gov. Eddie Calvo said in his newspaper column. “The military buildup on Guam has spawned several new constructions projects in recent years, but contractors warned that the visa situation is likely to slow down these projects.”
According to Greg Massey, administrator of the Guam Department of Labor’s Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division, there are about 1,200 H-2B visa workers currently on Guam, but that number may drop drastically by the end of the year if there is no change in how visa requests are currently processed, He said the number of H-2B visa workers may fall below 100 — and may even drop to zero — by the end of December.
“This is an example of how the federal government needs to understand the unique situation on Guam so they can make decisions that don’t harm our island’s economy — and military construction is just a part of the overall picture,” Calvo said.
He noted that some capital improvement projects require agencies, such as the Guam Waterworks Authority, to comply with federal requirements. Their compliance with court orders is likely to be jeopardized. “Failure to comply will result in increased cost for ratepayers via a threatened federal receivership,” Calvo said. “Yet, it is the federal government that could prohibit Guam from the opportunity to comply. Contractors bidding for the CIP projects, to help agencies meet said requirements, are concerned that they cannot complete these projects without the help of H-2B laborers.”
Besides the visa situation, Guam has been dealing with the problem of convincing locals to enroll in trade schools. There are a number of training programs offered at the GCA Trades Academy with an end goal to build a resident labor pool. There are, however, not as many takers as hoped for.
The prospects of tapping manpower from the mainland are not bright either. Many states are dealing with the same predicament. And with the immigration issue at the center of political debate, the situation is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
The local labor department’s hands are tied. While the Alien Labor Processing and Certification Division is involved in the processing of visa petitions and renewal applications, the final actions are done by the San Francisco district office. During a budget hearing at the Guam Legislature in July, Massey explained that his office plays a supporting role in the H-2B process. “(The feds) gave us that delegated authority,” Massey told the Guam senators at the hearing. “We don’t want to become an aggressor and they turn around and decide that they are going to take away that labor certification authority.”
According to a press release from the governor’s office, Calvo is meeting with U.S. Department of Labor and Office of Economic Adjustment representatives this week to discuss short-term and long-term alternatives. “I am hopeful that this upcoming meeting will net the results our island needs to move forward,” the governor said.