Friday, March 9, 2007

Understanding The Path Of A Labor Complaint

Brief Background Info

I worked as an Administrative Hearing Officer (Administrative Law Judge) for the CNMI Department of Labor from October 1999 until shortly before I assumed office in January 2006. As a Labor hearing officer, I adjudicated hundreds of labor cases on Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Although it has been over a year since I left my old post at the Department of Labor, I thought that with Labor and Immigration being such hot topics these days, that it might be useful to give some insight into the workings of the CNMI Department of Labor. I will note, however, that many proposed changes are in the works, including a major overhaul of the CNMI's Nonresident Workers Act that I have been working on with a Task Force for well over a year, but this gives a good overall view of what the system is now.

Path of a Labor Complaint

When a complaint is filed with the Department of Labor, the case is assigned a case number and then forwarded to the Administrative Hearing Office for mediation. If mediation is successful, then the parties sign a settlement agreement that is approved by the mediator. If the mediation is unsuccessful, then the case is forwarded to the Enforcement Unit for investigation.

In the meantime, if the parties cannot resume their employment relationship while awaiting the final disposition of the case, then the mediator authorizes a Temporary Work Authorization (TWA) at or right after the mediation. The TWA document authorizes the employee to seek a temporary employer while awaiting adjudication of his/her case. The TWA does NOT authorize the employee and prospective temporary employer to engage in employment yet until all the proper paperworks have been filed.

Once the employee finds a temporary employer, then the employer is required to file the temporary employment application with Labor. After Labor approves the temporary employment arrangement, then the parties may engage in lawful employment. The employment is valid for 90 days and is renewable in 90-day increments for as long as the case remains pending.

Meanwhile, Labor investigators are required to quickly investigate the case and issue a determination. The determination lays out the investigator's findings. The Labor investigator then sends the case to the Hearing Office and then awaits notification of the hearing.

Upon receipt of the case, the Hearing Office then schedules a hearing. The recorded hearing is conducted according to the Administrative Procedures Act. Once the Administrative Order is served, the parties have 15 days to appeal the Order to the Secretary of Labor. The Secretary of Labor's Decision is reviewable by the CNMI Superior Court and, ultimately, the CNMI Supreme Court if need be.

The Role of Mediator/Hearing Officer

The hearing officers serve dual roles as mediators as well as hearing officers. In their capacity as hearing officers, the hearing officers conduct hearings in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act. I don't have an exact number, but in my six years at the Department of Labor, I can safely say that I heard hundreds of Labor cases. These range from transfer hearings, compliance agency cases, permit-revocation hearings, health and safety violation cases, labor cases, employment law cases, etc.

This job enabled me to gain a greater insight into the Commonwealth Labor system than perhaps the average citizen. I find this insight to be quite invaluable as I crafted or work to craft new Labor legislation and other important pieces of legislation that I believe are needed.

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