Friday, July 27, 2007

Is It Time For All of Us To Have A Talk At Oleai?

Food For Thought 7-27-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Misunderstandings are usually at the heart of many arguments and heated discussions. When you don’t have all the facts or all the information that someone else may be basing their decisions on, it makes it difficult to understand how they may have come to their conclusions and why they are taking the stands they are. Most of us tend to rush to judgment and are willing to draw our own conclusions based on the first few facts we encounter. Wisdom would dictate that you hold your tongue and comments until you find out a little more about the situation, but unfortunately wisdom is not always employed. And when we jump to our own conclusions and lash out at those we view as being on the other side of the argument, it is usually the beginning of the escalation of hostilities. When individuals do this sort of thing, it is usually called a fight or an argument, when countries do it, it can easily lead to war. In many of the cases, if someone would just sit the two people down and get to the bottom of what is going on, they might discover that the additional facts they learned had changed their perspective or attitude. And once that happens, they might find that they really aren’t as far apart as they had initially thought. Unfortunately, there isn’t usually that unbiased 3rd party around to mediate these situations when they occur.

Now I’m not saying that misunderstandings are always the problem. Sometimes it’s perfectly clear, and you just can’t agree on basic principles because you’re philosophically and diametrically opposed. Even in those situations, there is usually a mature and socially acceptable way to handle the disagreement where you agree to disagree after thoughtfully discussing the situation. And then there is the way that most us choose, lashing back at the other side, making accusations and trying to deflect the heat. It is always nice when both parties can discuss the situation, both arguing what they feel are the points of merit for their side, and listen attentively as the other person explains where they are coming from. A good debater knows that the key to their success is paying careful attention to the opponent’s arguments and using their weaknesses against them. Some of their points may actually strengthen your argument, but if you’re not really listening to them, you will never be able to avail of that strength. I’m usually not worried about the ones who are the first to speak, who monopolize the conversation cutting other people off and always have to have the last word. There usually isn’t a lot of point in trying to make a point to them or convince them of anything, because their minds are usually made up, and they make it perfectly clear they really don’t care what you have to say by cutting you off and interrupting you. You know where they are coming from, and you also know there is likely nothing you are going to say or do that will change their mind. So honestly, why bother? Why go to the time and effort of trying to convince them, when you probably have a better chance of building a snowman in hell.

The people that I enjoy having a discussion or dialogue with are those who are willing to thoughtfully listen and ponder what you are saying, carefully weighing it before giving their opinion or defense of their point. I find that I usually learn quite a bit from this type of person, because they are a thinker. They don’t simply rely on the knowledge or facts already contained in their brain, but they are always observing and gaining new facts and perspectives. This kind of person is always learning and always adapting based on the new facts and knowledge they come across, in other words they are always growing.

Have you ever met someone who thinks exactly the same way about everything that they did 20 years ago? Their attitudes and opinions haven’t changed a bit, they believed they were right then, and they are still completely convinced of it. This person has no need of learning anything new, because in their mind, they already know it all. Chances are good they won’t listen to anything you have to say, unless you happen to agree with them about everything.

There is no shame in admitting that you once felt a certain way about an issue, but now because of new information and new facts you have come across, have changed your attitude and opinion. Most people who do any amount of thinking, reading and listening will have their attitudes change and shift on different things many times throughout their life. It’s all a part of the learning process. Can you imagine where we’d be if we adamantly stuck to everything that was known about science 100 years ago? What about 50 years ago? What about even 10 years ago? If there is one thing that a good scientist will tell you, it’s that they are always learning new things and changing their feelings and attitudes toward certain things based on the new information and facts available.

I was recently involved in a situation regarding something I wrote about in my blog. I’m not going to rehash it, but there were some who disagreed with what I did. One person chose to write in their blog about why what I did was so bad, and give me a good public whipping for it. Another person, who also didn’t really agree with me, but for different reasons, chose to call me up and discuss the situation over a drink at Oleai, first getting to know me, and then explaining what their concerns were and letting me draw my own conclusions. Needless to say I reacted very differently to the two different approaches. I decided to go after the one who I felt had attacked me, and attack back. I know I didn’t handle it the way I should have, and frankly the whole thing got much uglier than it ever should have been. But after listening to all the concerns of the other person over a drink at Oleai, I completely understood where they were coming from and pulled my blog that he felt could possibly set a poor example. I learned a lot from that couple hour conversation, and it will have an impact on how I look at things from that point forward.

The only reason I bring that example up is because I see the potential for some very serious problems starting to surface right now in the CNMI. We are a community in transition and because we all have various ways we want to see those transitions happen and some of us are outspoken about them, it gives the potential for some pretty severe divisions. We have already seen some racially charged statements and attitudes aired. This group doesn’t like these people because of this, and this group of people is striking back by doing this. Sadly in the middle of this mix we have a newspaper that likes to fan the flames of controversy and pit different groups of people against each other. They’ve been doing it for a very long time, and they’re good at it. They like going back and forth from one group to the other trying to get comments about the other. Then they use those comments to go to the other group and try to get them to say something back against the first group in retaliation for their comments. This particular newspaper isn’t try to bring the community together or to create understanding, they are trying to fan the flames of controversy, and where they can’t find any, they’ll create some.

Honestly, our community is faced with some overwhelming challenges at the moment. We’re being battered on every side and we’re losing many businesses and residents as a result. We really can’t afford to be divided right now and to be fighting each other, each only looking out for their own self-interests and ignoring all other points of view. For all of our survival we need to stop sniping at one another. We need to start listening to the other side, consider what they are saying, learn from it and move on from there. We all need to go to Oleai, pull up a table that sits right on the beach, order your favorite beverage, listen to the sounds of waves lapping at the beach, and watch the sun as it sinks down at the edge of the ocean. Then we need to first listen, seriously listen with our ears and minds open, letting the other person have their say. We need to show each other proper respect, showing that we not only respect their opinion, but also respect them as a person, and see what they have to say that we can use to broaden our knowledge base.

We just really can’t afford to be tearing each other down right now, attacking just because they have an opinion that differs from yours. And there is nothing wrong with telling a newspaper that is looking to stir up controversy that you have no comment. So they may sell a few less newspapers that day because they don’t have any inflammatory accusations to report on, oh well.

I think we can all agree that we haven’t always handled things here the best we could have. That’s ok, the U.S. has to make the same concession, remember slavery and segregation used to be legal there. We have all made mistakes and hopefully have learned from them. The point is you need to take your newfound knowledge and go forward, not dwelling in the past and trying to defend who you were back then or what you did.

Have I made mistakes in the past, absolutely, and I will undoubtedly make a few more before I’m done with this earth. The point is that you admit them, learn from them, and then move forward. It is also important to remember as we try bringing out community together, that most people will respond much better to a friendly talk than they will to being publicly attacked. So I’ll see you all at Oleai tonight?

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

Economic Realities

Food For Thought 7-20-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

This past week has been a tough one for me, for a lot of reasons. The biggest one is that I had to let half of my staff go last week. I knew it was going to be coming, the call from the owner saying that we had to further cut our expenses. When your revenues continue to plummet and yet your costs (electricity) continue to skyrocket, you have to do something. At that point if you have a huge bank account, you can subsidize the cost of doing business by pumping in money to keep the operation afloat. Or you can look into taking out loans to continue operating at your current level, hoping that things will turn around soon and you’ll recoup the money you kept pumping in when it couldn’t be justified. Or there’s option #3, not a very popular one among most politicians and government workers. That’s when you cut your expenses so that you live within your means. In other words, if you’re only taking in $20,000 a month, you don’t keep spending $30,000 a month. You cut everywhere you can, and get rid of all the things that aren’t an absolute necessity.

We’ve already done all that, we’ve cut out extra phone lines, cancelled newspaper subscriptions, turned off one of the stations, and about the only thing left to cut was staff. I got the call late last week that we needed to cut all the part time announcers we had on staff, that meant my staff shrank from 8 to 4 overnight. We had previously already cut our staff size from 12 down to 8, but now more was required. It’s quite a challenge to try running and operating a radio station with 4 people, when that includes you as the General Manager. Needless to say, you are in a fight for survival, and you do whatever it takes.

Of course we still wanted to keep both of our main stations on the air, 103.9 FM – KZMI, and 101.1 FM – KCNM. We also wanted to keep a live presence on both stations without having to totally automate either one. That meant that I had to start doing an air shift again, so now I’m doing 6-10 am on KZMI, while Lewie Tenorio shifted over and is doing the morning shift on KCNM. It broke my heart that we had to let some great long term employees go, but there was simply no other option; everything else had already been done.

I realize the rumor mill is in overdrive right now, and I’m sure our competitors are helping to fuel those fires, but no, we are not going off the air and closing our doors at this point in time. We are struggling, yes, as is every other business that I know of on island. Our economy is in total shambles, the politicians have no clue how to improve the situation, and in their infinite wisdom may actually make things much worse very soon. And most other businesses that are looking at investing in the CNMI are afraid to do so right now for a number of reasons. Many are looking at the federal immigration take-over legislation that has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate now, they want to know what it will mean for our workforce and our tourism markets. And until those answers are cleared up and we know what the new rules are going to be, many people are afraid to move. I believe that our economy desperately needs these issues to be finally ironed out once and for all, we need answers not impending question marks and uncertainty.

Can the U.S. take over our immigration system and confer permanent residency status to our long-term contract workers? Yes, they have that right. We can fight, argue, complain, drag our heels, and anything else we can think of, but I believe the truth of the matter is, it’s not really going to make any difference in the end. I think the politicians in Washington pretty much have their minds made up, I think some of them had their minds made up 15 years ago, and are just now getting the chance to get their way.

If the U.S. does take over our immigration, will it be good or bad for us? You can find some very well meaning people on both sides of this debate. A lot of people have some very real concerns about the impact this could possibly have on our tourism markets and on our ability to get the workers we need. They don’t exactly trust the U.S. government to work out all the details later and make sure that they take our interests and concerns into account. Then there are those who would say that this is long overdue, and the U.S. should have done this years ago. They believe that our system hasn’t operated properly for a long time, and that it has been riddled with corruption. There have certainly been examples in the past that would justify that view, but are they still the same today? And will the federal government necessarily do any better a job at protecting our borders and making sure we don’t have a problem with illegal aliens staying here? A very good case could be made that they haven’t exactly done a very good job with their own situation, so what is to make us believe they will do any better here? But again, the bottom line here is that the U.S. does have every right to take over control of our immigration, and they will most likely do as they please, regardless of what we say or think.

Then there is also the whole issue of the U.S. granting the long-term contract workers permanent residency, or F.A.S. status. Does the U.S. have the right to do that? Yes, they absolutely do. Was it in the Covenant, or was it ever part of the discussions between the islands and the U.S. government when the Commonwealth was being formed? No it wasn’t, but again, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. can’t do as they please now. And all indications are they will do as they please, and again, I don’t really think it makes much difference what any of us say or feel about the issue.

I do believe there are a few issues that are worth considering if they go ahead with this. The first would be that this means these workers would no longer be considered contract workers, but would now be considered local workers. That means they are no longer entitled to the same benefits as a contract worker. The employer would no longer be required to cover all their medical expenses, or to give them any medical coverage at all for that matter. Is the U.S. prepared to give us “impact” money for the additional costs at C.H.C.? You have to believe that having that many more “local” workers without adequate insurance or medical coverage would mean that there will be a lot more unpaid bills at C.H.C.
Then you also have to consider the influx of students in the schools if these new “local” workers are allowed to start bringing their families from their country of origin. Our schools are already overcrowded and under funded, what will that kind of influx of students mean to the quality of education for all students? Is the U.S. prepared to give us money to help out with the additional cost of education for the influx of new students as a result of these workers they have now given permanent resident status? If the U.S. doesn’t plan on giving us any money to help offset these additional costs, it means we will have no choice but to either cut the rebates or raise taxes substantially. Cutting the rebates is raising taxes just for the record.

These are all factors that need to be considered and planned for. If we just allow them to happen to us and we don’t have a plan of what we are going to do, or how we are going to deal with it, things will continue the downward spiral economically. I personally am not opposed to the U.S. granting permanent residency, citizenship or anything else they think is appropriate to the long-term contract workers. But there will be economic consequences that need to be planned for and taken into account if that happens. Right now I don’t hear either the U.S. government or our government talking about how to deal with those issues, or what they will do about them. Failure to plan in this case means you are planning to fail.

Now we have a multitude of contract workers and others who have joined their cause threatening to boycott businesses affiliated with the Chamber because of the Chamber’s testimony in front of the U.S. Senate. That is certainly their right, but there are a couple things they need to keep in mind before they take this too far. Just because you belong to the Chamber doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with all stands taken by the Chamber. The Chamber is made up of many different businesses, all with their own opinions and points of view. Its diversity is one of its greatest strengths. But on a small island like this, when you boycott one business you affect all other businesses. When one business sneezes, a dozen others catch a cold. When one has to make cuts as a result of a loss of sales or a downturn in the economy, it means that other businesses that do business with them will also have to make cuts, or raise prices as a result. It’s extremely difficult to raise prices too much in this economy to make up for your losses or increased cost of doing business, so what many businesses will wind up doing is cutting their expenses and their staff. Boycotting one business or a few different businesses will not just affect them, but will have a domino effect that will affect many other businesses as well. This will most likely result in lost jobs, with some of the contract workers who were hoping for permanent residency actually finding themselves without a job, and on their way back to the Philippines with the only permanent residency in their future back in the P.I. For every action, there is always a reaction. Yes, you may have the power, but are you prepared to pay the costs for the reactions when they come?

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Take Care prices themselves out of the market

Food For Thought 7-13-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

The economic realities of just how bad things really are are being brought home to us in almost daily doses lately. Every time I see another example of the economic hardships and cutbacks taking place, I want to just grab former Governor Babauta by the scruff of the neck, and ask him, is this your idea of pretty darn good? I’ve already heard that he’s testing the waters and seeing what his chances would be of running for either Washington Representative or Governor again. I also understand that he’s blaming the entire mess we’re in right now on the current administration. Is he really that stupid and delusional? Is he that out of touch with reality that he can’t accept responsibility for what he did to these islands? I’m still hoping that maybe this new white-collar division within the Attorney General’s office will bring him up on charges and put him behind bars. It was his arrogance and blatant ignoring of spending caps and limits, and ignoring of what was happening at C.U.C. that has put us in the situation we currently find ourselves in. I’ve had a few people ask me if our current situation doesn’t make me wish for the good old days of Babauta. I honestly don’t believe our current situation would be anywhere near as bad as it is if it weren’t for him. And to those who ask that, I ask what you’re hoping to get out of the situation if he actually makes it back into office, because that’s the only reason I could see anyone possibly thinking such a thing.

But then there are those businesses out there that just seem to want to kick us while we’re down as well. We were notified about the renewal of our health insurance this past week. Last year, Take Care, which had previously been bought out by a group of the employees and shareholders, raised our premiums by over 100% at our renewal time. This year, on the heels of a staggering huge increase last year, they have notified us that they are again raising our premiums by 110%. They now want over $500 per month for each employee, and they are asking over $1,900 a month for coverage for a family. Now I realize there may be a few people on island who can afford those kinds of premiums, however they are few and far between. And especially during times like this when we are all having to tighten our belts and cut back everywhere we possibly can, an increase like that is just obscene, especially in light of the fact that they are posting their highest profits and shares for shareholders. So I was not really very impressed with them just from that standpoint alone.

But as my favorite broadcaster, Paul Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. When I asked what they gave as the reason for that second drastic increase in a row, I was told that one of the reasons they listed was for claims made that year. In other words they were financially penalizing us because I actually had to use my insurance last year and get a heart catheterization. Now I don’t recall them ever offering a discount or giving us any money back when we didn’t have to use the insurance, but then when you actually need it and use it, they crucify you by raising your entire companies premiums to over $6,000 a year per person. So they expect you to pay your premiums like a good client every month, but then when you actually need the services you’ve been paying for all along, they try to make you pay it all back over the next couple years through exorbitant rate increases. Now this is enough to make your blood boil and definitely push you to the edge of a coronary episode, but believe it or not that’s still not all.

The doctors I saw who told me I had a heart problem also happened to work for the FHP clinic. Now I really liked my doctor at FHP, and I’m not saying that he would have given me bad medical advice at all. But when you have a situation where the same company owns both the insurance company and the medical clinic you have to go to, and the insurance company can raise their rates based on your medical needs or diagnosis, it makes you wonder whether you can truly trust your physician. Can the insurance company tell the doctors that work for them what kind of diagnosis are acceptable or not acceptable based on the cost of treatment? After all, it is the same company that is taking your premiums and insuring you that is paying the doctors salaries. Are you truly getting the best health care possible, or are you only getting the most cost effective health care possible so that the insurance company can minimize their financial exposure and maximize their profits and dividends to share holders. And can the doctor really give you their best advice and tell you what they would do if money were no object, when they have the same company paying their salaries that is paying for your health care? To me there is an obvious conflict of interest here, and in my mind a breach of ethics as well. My concerns are really not targeted at the doctors, but at the company who runs both a health insurance company and the medical clinic that you have to use if you have their insurance. And the proof of impropriety in my mind is in the pudding. When they raise your rates by 110% and then claim it’s because of your medical claim the previous year that was based on their doctor’s diagnosis and recommendation, you really have to question whether it’s your health they’re concerned with, or their own financial health.

So the question of what we will be doing insurance wise this year just got easier for us. Take Care priced themselves out of the market, and put themselves in a position in which we don’t really feel we can trust them any longer or afford them. We have done some looking for other insurance options online, and have found some international companies, or American companies specializing in international insurance situations like ours who are offering premiums that are 1/3rd the cost of what we were quoted locally. If you find yourself or your company in a similar situation this year and simply can’t afford the outrageous increases, I’d like to encourage you to look at other options. They may not be as convenient, and you may have to pay for your medical care up front and then get reimbursed by your insurance company for it, but the amount of money you’ll be saving will more than make up for any inconvenience. I don’t know of many companies that have money to burn in this economy. Most of the businesses I know are looking for every possible area to cut and are doing whatever they have to in order to makes ends meet. This is the absolute worst time for an insurance company to be getting greedy and to try going for record profits. I believe they will find that most people will find they can live without them, and will begin looking for the alternatives. If you have a hard time finding the international insurance options online, I’d be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
I wish I had been wrong all these years about what was coming here economically and what it would mean to the island. But so far, everything is pretty much on the mark of where I said we were heading. And the scariest part of it is that we’re still not at bottom yet. The Governor said something at a PTI function the other day about us experiencing “better times” now because of the new service the phone company was offering. This is the wrong time to be insinuating that we are experiencing better times. Businesses have cut and cut and cut some more. Some of us have had to lay off up to half of our staff recently because of the economic realities and exorbitant power rates we’re faced with. Others are cutting salaries, any expenses possible and are still wondering when it will finally be enough, or how much more they can cut before there is simply no use trying to do business here anymore.

Last Wednesday the Saipan Chamber of Commerce had a meeting in which they outlined the effects to business if House Bill 15-38 actually passes with it’s present amendments. They had done their homework and had facts and figures all prepared. The Chamber invited all the lawmakers to attend so they would see the effects and realize what this bill would do to business and the impact it would have. And yet only 5 of the 28 lawmakers actually bothered to show up to hear the presentation. Does this mean that our lawmakers don’t really care about the effects their bill will have on business? Does it mean that they don’t want to hear what business thinks would make this bill palatable for them? Does it mean that they didn’t think they could actually understand the presentation anyway, so there was no point sitting through it? The lawmakers who did bother showing up were Senator Maria “Frica” Pangelinan, Speaker Oscar Babauta, and Representatives Manny Tenorio, Ray Yumul and Absalon Waki.

Wouldn’t you think that the rest of the lawmakers would have been at least a little curious to find out what the business community thought the impacts of this bill would be? Wouldn’t you have thought it would have at least shown some sort of interest or competence on their part? And this bill hasn’t even been through the Senate yet. That means the Senators still have to debate on this bill and then vote on it. But yet 8 of the 9 senators didn’t even bother to show up to hear about the business communities concerns with the bill. These lawmakers aren’t responsive, and the only people they are representing are themselves. Voting as a business person, I can guarantee that I won’t vote for a single one of them that didn’t bother showing up for that meeting, I’m looking for 23 replacements automatically this coming election.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

Friday, July 6, 2007

Taotao Tano shows their true colors

Food For Thought 7-6-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

About a month ago I had Greg Cruz, the founder of the Taotao Tano group on my morning talk show talking about what they were trying to accomplish as a group. While I didn’t agree with everything he had to say, I felt for the most part he was on target with what they were trying to accomplish as a group. They were fed up with the corruption and incompetence of elected officials. They wanted to see more accountability and results from their leaders. They wanted a power company that was operated properly, efficiently and effectively. I can go along with all of that, I want the same things.

But recently the have crossed a line which I cannot tolerate in any way. They went from being political activists to now being social and ethnic activists. They were out picketing against the Dekada movement with signs telling all contract workers to go home that we don’t need them here and they don’t belong here. All the sudden they went from being a group trying to invoke political change to a group of hate mongering racists. Some of them may not have even realized what happened and how quickly it changed who they were and how they were perceived.

Now I’m not a fan of the Dekada movement either, but not for the same reasons. I feel that the Dekada movement is off base, and is demanding things they really have no right to demand. Just because these workers have been here for 5 years does not automatically entitle them to citizenship or voting rights. They were never told they would get those things when they signed on to work jobs here. They were told they would be paid to do a job here, and that’s what they got. And for many years, the contract workers were content to work their jobs, get their pay, and they never had expectations of getting anything else out of it.

Then along comes a lawyer who isn’t exactly busy with cases, and he links up with some of the contract workers, and tells them that if they form an organization, and start recruiting all of their fellow contract workers, and all pay him $100 each, that he will represent them and work to get them all U.S. citizenship. All the sudden many of these contract workers, who were previously happy just to have their jobs here, now all the sudden believe that this lawyer may actually be able to do something to get them either permanent residency or U.S. citizenship. They realize that the political climate has changed in the U.S., the Democrats are now in control of the House and Senate, and they are much more likely to be convinced to grant the contract workers some kind of permanent status. They are now thinking they are entitled to permanent residency, voting rights, or maybe even the Holy Grail itself, U.S. citizenship.

The first reason I am not a fan of this movement is because I believe it really is a way for an allegedly ethically challenged lawyer to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars. He is praying on people’s desperation and desire to improve their standing in life. If they can get permanent residency or U.S. citizenship, it means they would never have to live in the Philippines again, and that they could sponsor their other family members and get them out of the Philippines as well. As someone who has been to Manila several times, I can totally understand why this would be so attractive and appealing to these contract workers. But I just really don’t appreciate this attorney using these people and their desperation as a get rich quick scheme. Because frankly, if their status changes and they get some kind of new permanent resident status, it won’t be because of his lobbying efforts or anything else he did, it will probably be due to Allen Stayman and his agenda for these islands.

If we were to go to almost any other country as a contract worker, they would not consider giving us permanent residency or citizenship just because we fulfilled the terms of our contract. There are a few countries that do consider giving citizenship to those who have decided to relocate there, but they are few and far between. Our contract workers have provided a very valuable service to us while they’ve been here, but the terms of their contracts have been honored, and they’ve been paid and given the benefits promised. This new thinking that they are entitled to citizenship or permanent residency is a bit presumptuous of them.

If the U.S. government decides that they should get permanent residency or F.A.S. status, I guess that is within their rights to grant to them. I am a little curious as to why they would decide to treat the contract workers here differently than the way treat their own contract workers, but that’s an argument for another day. However, if the U.S. does grant this time of residency, then I believe they should also have a plan laid out for how they plan to compensate the CNMI for the added burden of these new permanent residents. Now that they will be permanent residents, they will no longer be treated as contract workers here, which means their employers will no longer be responsible for their medical care. Now all the sudden instead of the employer being responsible for the hospital costs associated with every baby born to a contract worker, they would then be responsible for those costs themselves. What if they don’t have insurance? Will they really pay for all the bills incurred at C.H.C.? We already have a huge problem of people not paying for their medical bills; can you imagine how much worse it would be under that system?

If they are permanent residents, it means they can start bringing all their family over to live with them as well. They will no longer be tied to only bringing family members along if they make a wage high enough to guarantee they can support them. This means additional bills at C.H.C. and it also means that our already overcrowded schools will have a huge influx of students. We don’t have property taxes or anything else that is earmarked to pay for public education. It all just comes out of the general government coffers. Is the U.S. ready to take responsibility for all the additional costs to the CNMI government if they give these contract workers permanent resident status? So far I have heard nothing that would indicate they would be willing to give us anymore money to offset those costs at all, if anything I’ve heard just the opposite.

It’s all good and fine if the U.S. wants to exercise their right to grant permanent residency, but with that right comes a fairly sizable responsibility and financial obligation as well. So I am definitely against the granting of the permanent residency if the U.S. has no intention of helping to take care of the costs associated with it. That would be like me inviting all of you to join me for dinner at a certain restaurant tonight, but then when the check comes, I would look at the restaurant expecting them to pay for it all. Not very realistic, and I don’t think it’s very realistic for the U.S. government to expect us to all the sudden absorb all these extra permanent residents without offsetting the cost of it for us, especially since it would be their decision to grant them permanent residency in the first place.

Now if the U.S. has a plan for that, and they actually start making good on their compact impact payments to us, then that would be a different story. But so far I haven’t heard anything even remotely like that.

But back to where this started in the first place, for the Taotao Tano group to be picketing contract workers telling them all to go home and that we don’t want them here, I think shows an extremely prejudiced and racist side that I find appalling. I have noticed that some of the people who initially joined with this group have now distanced themselves from it as a result of their racist views. And I’m guessing that even the groups legitimate points will now be lost in the shuffle as a result of their taking things too far, and allowing racism and bigotry to enter into their agenda. They have completely eroded their credibility by not sticking to their original message and intent. When you are so focused on yourself that you don’t care what happens to those around you, you will find there are fewer and fewer people that actually want anything to do with you. Because they know that sooner or later they will find something about you that could make them picket you too.

I’m guessing that the U.S. politicians are also watching the Taotao Tano group, and that it only adds fuel to their fire as to why they should completely federalize the CNMI Immigration system. One of the things that doesn’t get the airplay it should is that this group is nowhere near as big as they claim, especially now. They have claimed to have thousands of members, and yet when they hold a meeting or a rally, they are lucky to get 50 people to show up. And I don’t believe their argument that most of their supporters are government workers who are afraid to be seen with them for fear of retaliation. If they really had that many supporters in the government, then you would figure there would still be a fair amount in the private sector and unemployed who would show up to support them. But when that’s all you can get to show up, it is indicative that you simply don’t have broad spread appeal or support. And when you show that you’re a racist, it should come as no surprise that you have no support or followers.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

Friday, June 29, 2007

A troubling exodus of people, and a few bright spots worth mentioning.

Food For Thought 6-29-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

It would seem that we need added seat capacity on the airlines servicing Saipan lately. Unfortunately it seems that most of the seats are for one-way trips away from Saipan. In the past week, I have come across about a dozen people all leaving Saipan for one reason or another. Some of them are leaving to go back and be close to the family they left behind to come out here, which is completely understandable. Others are leaving because the cost of living here has just climbed to the point of no longer being competitive with other similar destinations, also totally understandable. They can live in other places in the Pacific Rim for a fraction of the cost to live here. Our soaring utility costs are a big factor in many of the people’s decisions to leave. I have talked to some people who used to have a $300 per month utility bill; their bills have now skyrocketed to $700 or $800 a month. How do you handle that when your hours and wages are being cut at the same time? You are being asked to live on less, when your costs are skyrocketing out of control. It’s simple economics, and it just doesn’t work.

Then there are those that trouble me the most. They are the ones who were born here, who call this island home, and for the most part, whose family is still right here in the islands. The reasons I have heard for many of them leaving is that they just have no confidence that things will ever improve here. They have witnessed their relatives who are in power rape and pillage these islands financially. They have watched them use and abuse their positions for their own profit. They hear the campaign rhetoric and the public spin their relatives give, but they see them behind the scenes and know the truth. They realize that without some serious, sweeping reforms, our islands will not recover from this current disaster we are facing, but will just continue the downward spiral. They want something better for their families and their children. They realize that they may have to take pay cuts, and find lower level jobs if they go to the states, but they don’t care, they look at it as a step in the right direction because they have totally lost faith in their relatives in power and the system currently in place here. In the past couple months; I have talked to no less than 20 local families all expressing such sentiments. These families are expressing their frustration by casting a no confidence vote in the way things are being handled. No, they’re not going to the election booth and casting the vote, they are casting it by walking away from their home and all they have ever known and moving to the states. And when someone is to the point of casting their vote that way, you know you have some very serious problems that won’t be cured by simply promising better times and offering several other hollow campaign promises.

In many respects, I believe we are a community in crisis at the moment. Most of our problems seem to be bigger than life, the exit of the garment industry, dwindling government resources, escalating fuel prices and electricity rates as a result, a legislature that seems incapable of handling anything, fewer and fewer airline seats coming in to the CNMI and the list goes on and on. If you only concentrate on all the negative things swirling around you, it is easy to become discouraged and think there is no hope. And when you only concentrate on all the negative things, it tends to shape your thinking processes and limit your potential as well. But I have been getting glimmers of some very positive things happening and taking place in our islands. I think we need to search these positive things out and give them the proper recognition they deserve as well.

One of the biggest gripes of most people is the lack of enforcement in almost everything. We have laws coming out our ears, but the problem is that most of them aren’t worth the paper they are written on because nobody is making any effort to enforce them. I was sitting in Capricciosa eating dinner last Friday night when I looked out the window and saw that someone had moved 4 rusted out containers onto that vacant lot on the corner. Yes, it is the same one they had set up the yellow tents on previously and used to sell Tinian hot pepper products and I’m not sure what all else. There were workers with torches who were cutting holes into the containers, I’m assuming to turn them into some kind of a makeshift building for a store. I shook my head that this was actually being allowed. As if we don’t already have enough image problems on Saipan, now we were allowing someone to use nasty looking containers for a business right in the heart of our tourism district, and right on Beach Road. I was thinking to myself, this is exactly why we need zoning. Hold on, I haven’t forgotten about getting to the positives, I just had to pave the way first.

Then this morning when I checked my e-mail, there was one from Steve Tilley, the Zoning Administrator. It was a press release saying that he had cited Empress Inc. with a Notice of Violation for having the cut up containers on that lot by Capricciosa and Tony Roma’s. The company was cited for failing to apply for a zoning permit for installing a container storage structure in the middle of Saipan’s premier shopping district, warning that penalties could be in the thousands of dollars and include jail time. This company also failed to get a building permit. The notice of violation was issued on June 28th, but Tilley’s calls to the company have gone unanswered as of the time of issuing the press release. The company can be fined $1,000 per violation, per day and has one month to respond to the notice. So just pretending they don’t know what’s going on won’t work, the fines could be enough to bankrupt them in no time if they don’t get their affairs in order. I can’t ever remember being so happy in reading a press release from a government agency. The system is actually working!

If we allowed businesses to just throw up any kind of structure they wanted, no matter how hideous it looked, this would be turned into a shantytown island in no time. We have been criticized as being a low-end tourist destination in the past, and things like those containers on that corner lot would only add fuel to that accusation. I’m glad to see we have Steve Tilley standing guard trying to make sure that we don’t let our image continue to deteriorate. The implementation of enforcement actually stopped that project dead in it’s tracks, can you just imagine what would happen if we got serious about enforcing some of our other laws? Great job Steve, and awesome way to set an example of taking your job seriously!

Then I also wanted to spend a little time talking about a group of bright young students Angelo Villagomez and Bree Reynolds brought in to my studio Thursday morning. They are part of the Beautify CNMI Marianas Challenge Summer Camp, being put on by Angelo and Bree. These students really are learning about our environment, and what they can do to help protect it. I made sure they’ve learned something by grilling them with questions on Island Issues. Sami and Zoe totally impressed me with what they’ve learned and their passion about it. The only thing that caused me any concern at all was that Sami was just way too relaxed and good on the radio. I’m afraid she could replace me in a heartbeat if she wanted to, my only consolation is that she’s just going in to the 9th grade this coming year, so my job is probably safe for a couple years anyway.

Part of what they did in this camp was to write public service announcements from what they have learned to air on the radio stations. Some of them even wrote an original song about beautifying the CNMI, they wrote the words and music. They came in with their ukelele and recorded the song in my production studio. I’ve got to say, I absolutely love it! You’ll be hearing a lot of that song and those psa’s in the coming months on both of our radio stations. What a talented group of students, and something tells me these are our leaders of tomorrow. If you’d like to see some of the pictures from their summer camp, and learn what it was all about, you can go to the website and read all about it. Tasi Tours deserves a big thank you for donating a van and driver to help transport the campers all week to their various places. And after hearing from the students on the air, Ed Salas of Tan Holdings Corporation called up donating Shirleys lunch for all the campers that day. They had talked about how the camp was being run on a shoestring budget and they were just making do with whatever they had, so Ed called up on behalf of Tan Holdings to give them a break from peanut butter or bologna for lunch. Many thanks go out to all the various people in the community who chip in to make amazing events like this happen. And while you could technically say this was job related for Angelo, Bree is a science teacher at Hopwood Junior High School, and is supposed to be on summer vacation right now. But she loves what she’s doing so much, and loves the students so much, that she donated her time to help put on this summer camp.

So in spite of the fact that we are in the middle of some very challenging times right now, there are still some amazing things happening right in the middle of it all. We all have a choice, whether we’re going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution. These students have made the choice to be part of the solution. Steve Tilley has chosen to be part of the solution by taking his job seriously, and not letting the image of Saipan continue to deteriorate. Great job all of you! Now as for the rest of you, how can we get you plugged in to be part of the solution, any ideas?

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

Friday, June 22, 2007

More on the Labor Reform bill, & why hasn't the mandatory drivers training law been implemented yet?

Food For Thought 6-22-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I did take a little bit of heat over my comments last week about the local Labor Reform bill. And I understand that the lawmakers have finally taken domestic workers off of the exemption list of contract workers who have to leave the CNMI for 6 months every 3-½ years. I guess they might have thought that looked a little too self-serving. I am still not thrilled with the bill though. To me one of the biggest sticking points is that they have done away with voluntary transfers for the contract workers, and they don’t give them the chance to look for another job or to transfer to another employer at the end of their contract or if they are let go for any reason. The lawmakers will try to tell you that this is to give locals a better chance of getting these jobs. I don’t know whom they are trying to fool though, the problem is not that there aren’t enough jobs for the locals; the problem is that there aren’t enough locals willing to do the jobs that are available.

This particular provision will make it very difficult for some businesses to remain properly staffed. If you can’t find enough workers for your business, you have a problem. I haven’t noticed that locals are fighting for the right to be waitresses, clean hotel rooms, or any number of other jobs that they might not view as suitable or acceptable. By stopping all consensual transfers it means that businesses will now have a tougher time finding workers for some of their positions. And as long as the moratorium is still in place, it means that businesses will have to get exemptions for doing any hiring off island.

But one of the biggest problems with this provision is that it will add more fuel to the federal governments argument that we are discriminatory and should not be in charge of our own immigration. Our government leaders seem to have forgotten that it was the federal government that put pressure on us to let contract workers get secondary employment and to transfer to another employer if it was consensual. Taking away all transfers once again will make it look like we are taking a couple steps backward to the federal government. And if they don’t agree with what we are doing in our local legislation, then how can we possibly expect them to stand up for us when it comes to this new immigration takeover bill that has now been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Of course all of this comes on the heels of the new minimum wage bill, which applies to the CNMI as well. I had Terence Trotter, the Assistant District Director for the United States Department of Labor, Wage & Hour Division in the studio the other day, along with Dorothy Hill, legal counsel for the CNMI Department of Labor. They were talking about the applicability of the new minimum wage in the CNMI, and whom it will affect. One of aspects I was most interested in, because I believe there are a lot of people looking for answers on it, was how this would apply to domestic workers, which includes maids, housekeepers, household farmers or gardeners, and household maintenance workers. Dorothy said that the Department of Labor will be allowing some people out of their contracts for these workers based on economic hardship, but it will be examined on a case-by-case basis. According to the CNMI Department of Labor, if these domestic workers were let go, they would then be entitled to 45 days to look for another job before having to return to their country of origin. She pointed out that the previous employer is still responsible for their medical care and costs during that 45 days, and they are still responsible for their repatriation costs if they are not successful in finding another job.

Well that got me to wondering, so who is responsible for their housing and food for that 45 days that they are looking for another employer? You need to remember that most domestic workers here are live-in workers, meaning that they live in their employers’ house. I asked Dorothy if the current employer was required to keep providing them housing and food during that 45 days while they are not really working for them any longer and looking for another job. She said that no, they are not required to, but that the Department of Labor was hoping that the previous employer would “do the right thing”. That means they are hoping that the employer won’t kick them out on the street for that 45 days while they are looking for another job, but they are not mandating them to continue housing and feeding them.

Am I the only one that thinks this is going to turn into a huge fiasco? I don’t think it is reasonable to expect the previous employer to really want to continue housing and feeding these workers for 45 days when they are getting nothing out of it. Even though a lot of the local families may think of their housekeepers as family because they have been with them so long, I have reason to doubt that the feelings are always mutual, especially if you’ve been working them for 72 hours a week for only $300 a month. Then when the contract comes to an end, or is terminated because of economic hardship, I can see where there could be some real hard feelings on the domestic workers part, and I just think you’re asking for trouble by expecting the employer to continue housing and feeding them for the next 45 days.

But then again, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the employers will be happy to continue housing and feeding these ex-employees for 45 days, and maybe the ex-employees will be nothing but grateful that they were given the chance to work 72 hours a week for $300 a month. And maybe everyone will live happily ever after and this new local Labor Reform Bill will be signed into law, and businesses will all the sudden love it, and the federal government won’t care that we’ve taken away the ability of contract workers to transfer jobs, and we’ll all have all the money we need to keep up with the new minimum wage increases, and businesses will want to flock here because it is such a business friendly place. Yeah, that’s all within the realm of possibility. Well, in some universe it might be.

Then it was recently brought to my attention that even though the legislature passed the mandatory drivers training bill last year, and even though the Governor signed it into law, it is still not being implemented. The Department of Public Safety had 9 months to promulgate rules and regulations governing the driver’s training schools, but that deadline was up last month, and there are still no rules and regulations. There is one brave soul who decided to step out on a limb and go ahead and open a drivers training school, believing that the government would follow their own laws and mandate that all new drivers and everyone coming from another country would have to take a drivers training course. But because D.P.S. has not come up with the rules and regulations, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is still not requiring new drivers to take a drivers training course before getting their drivers license. Why is this? What is the use of passing a law if we have no intention of following through on it? And what kind of a message is this sending to other prospective investors? Go ahead and start a business based on our laws, but good luck if you actually expect us to implement them and enforce them. And we wonder why our economy is in the shape it’s in. The legislators should be asking why this law they passed is being ignored, and the Governor should be asking why one of his cabinet members hasn’t taken the needed measures to make sure that this law is implemented and enforced. After all, isn’t a driver’s training school in the interest of public safety after all? Yes, I’m a little confused here and can’t quite figure out why this situation is being allowed to continue as it is.

On a different note, the We Love Saipan network is continuing to climb in the Google search rankings. It is solidly #8 now if you type in a search of Saipan, and it even sneaks up to #7 occasionally, which puts it right below Saipan Sucks. I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time now before the We Love Saipan website bumps the Saipan Sucks website down in the Google search rankings. One thing that would probably help is if we got a few more Saipan people blogging and linking their blogs to the website. If you’d like to find out more about blogging, the We Love Saipan website, or just hang out with an interesting bunch of people, they will be meeting next Wednesday, June 27th at 7 pm at Java Joes in Dan Dan. If this is a way that you can positively help Saipan at no cost to you whatsoever, what do you have to lose by looking into it? You never know, you just might wind up loving it and getting hooked on it too!

And if this isn’t enough for you, and you actually want to hear some of my thoughts on a variety of other issues as well, feel free to check out my online blog anytime at If you get bored reading, there are at least some cool pictures to look at.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Labor reform that benefits who?

Food For Thought 6-15-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I’m still a bit stuck on this latest Labor Reform legislation that is trying to make it’s way through the legislature at the moment. I understand that a lot of time and effort has gone into it so far, and that a lot of the politicians are quite proud of it, thinking they are really fixing things this time around. I have heard some of them say that it is important to get this passed quickly, so that it will prove to the U.S. politicians that we can fix our own problems, and we don’t need them to step in and intervene. I’m guessing they are under the impression that the U.S. politicians will be impressed with this document, and will be convinced that we’re finally serious about dealing with all the issues surrounding contract workers, local job preference, and all the various facets of those topics.

I believe that some of them are also hoping they can get this passed before the election in November so they can show the voters they actually accomplished something with their 2 years in office, because frankly, they don’t have much else to show for their 2 years. I guess I question just who is really going to be impressed with this document, and whether it will actually accomplish anything when it’s all said and done.

Honestly, I have not been impressed with what I have seen of it so far at all. Now I will admit, that I probably haven’t seen the very latest version, because it seems it’s being updated on a daily basis, if not more often. That is a good thing actually, because there were a lot of glaring problems with this bill the way it was first put forth. The fact that it’s being changed so often means that the drafters are taking all the comments and concerns seriously, and trying to incorporate some of them into the bill itself. But to me, it seems we’re taking a broken down ox cart that hasn’t worked in years, slapping a little paint on it, and now expecting it to be fully functional.

One of the biggest problems with our labor laws in the past is that they were too complex, too burdensome, and not really workable. For example, we supposedly fixed the problem with locals making less than contract workers several years ago. Our legislators came up with something that was supposed to be a Fair Labor Act, giving local workers the equivalent of what contract workers were making when you factored in all their mandated benefits. But how do you do that, and is it the same for every business? The legislature never came up with any kind of formula to figure out how the difference in pay should be calculated. They left that up to the businesses to figure out. The businesses said they didn’t know how to come up with that number, and most of them just never tried. Since the legislature never really came up with an answer as to how to figure it out, the Labor Department had nothing to go on, and couldn’t really mandate that the employers pay the local workers the equivalent to what the contract workers were being paid when benefits were factored in. The legislature never really did anything about it, until now that is. This is supposed to take care of that problem. They say they will have a formula in this one that shows how employers are to figure out the difference. But I still haven’t seen that formula, so I don’t know if they’ve truly made any progress or not.

The one part of this bill that bothers me the most though has to do with the 6-month exit requirement every 3-½ years for all contract workers, unless they are a business executive or a domestic helper, or a maid. I know I’ve touched on this topic a couple weeks ago, but some of the things I’m hearing continue to astound me, meaning it obviously still needs to be talked about. One of the statements I find the most ridiculous is, “now that the minimum wage increase has taken effect, there probably won’t be that many maids left anyway, so it really doesn’t matter”. Well if that’s really the case, then why not just remove “domestic workers” or maids from the exemption list? When you push that topic and try to get them to commit to removing it or to explaining why they should be kept in, they just smile with no explanation. The truth of the matter is, that a fair number of the legislators probably plan on keeping their maids, and they don’t want to be inconvenienced for 6 months every 3-½ years. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all the explanations of how the maid is like a member of the family, and how they are like a mother to the children. The sad truth in many of the cases is that the maid is probably more of a mother to the children than the real mother is. But to the parents that are employing the maid, she is not family, she is merely someone that can be hired for $300 a month to do all the jobs they don’t want to do, to pick up after them, to clean for them, to cook for them, to do the laundry, and the list goes on and on. If they really valued her like family, they would pay her a living wage, not $300 a month.

And now I understand that there are those who have figured out that if the maid is a live in maid, then she may be exempt from overtime pay under the new minimum wage law. So even though they will have to start paying their maid $3.55 an hour starting on July 25th, they figure that they can still make them work as many hours as they feel like, as long as they live under the same roof, and only pay them for 40 hours a week. If you’re banking on that, you’re playing a risky game of Russian roulette that has a very good chance of blowing up in your face. Yes, there are a few legitimate exceptions in the law, but for the most part, if you have a maid, you’d better plan on bumping her pay to $3.55 an hour on July 25th, and paying her time and a half for anything over 40 hours a week. Anything else is risky, and will most likely be challenged at some point or another.

But back to the whole exemption for maids from the 6-month exit requirement, I’m afraid we’re sending a blaring message back to U.S. politicians. And the message is this, “Fine, we’re willing to force businesses to hurt and send back their contract workers periodically, but don’t ask us to inconvenience ourselves for any reason. We should be entitled to keeping our workers, even though we don’t think businesses should. We are still looking out for ourselves and our own comforts, and really don’t care how that looks. And if you don’t like it, well too bad, we make our own laws. We’ve gotten away with it so far, and until you prove to us we can’t get away with it any longer, we’re going to keep pushing it as far as we can”.

So do we honestly believe that by passing this legislation it will do anything whatsoever to appease the U.S. legislators and make them leave us alone? Do we really think we can treat business one way, and ourselves another and honestly expect any new businesses to want to come here?

Some of the current politicians seem to be waking up in certain areas, but they all seem to be asleep at the switch on others. Some of them seem to realize that running under a party banner will probably be the kiss of death in this upcoming election, and many of them have opted to run as independents instead. This will save them the money of having to kick in for beer and food for all the pocket meetings, and will help them distance themselves from the voter backlash and anger at what’s happened the last few years. But the smart voters will pay attention to who has been in office anyway, and what they have accomplished while they’ve been there. If you were elected under the Covenant banner last election, you are not going to escape any association with them and their policies this time around just because you’re running as an independent now. You’d better hope you have done something worth while to give the voters a reason to want you back, or it doesn’t matter what color your spots are, you’re still a leopard.

But I still haven’t heard a single politician stand up and say that the exemptions for maids to go back for 6 months every 3-½ years is ridiculous. Is it because they are afraid of angering voters that have maids, or is it because they are protecting their own self-interests yet again? Technically, any lawmaker who employs a domestic worker or a maid should excuse himself or herself from voting on this bill, because it is a conflict of interest for them. But then again, avoiding conflict of interest is not something most of them are eager to do anyway.

I agree with our lawmakers that they will be sending a message to the U.S. congress by passing the Labor Reform Act, but I would strongly disagree with them on what the message is.
I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Blogging as a way to promote Saipan, and the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program.

Food For Thought 6-8-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

Has it really been a week already since we last did this? I did have a cold this week, and that could have had something to do with it, but I swear this past week was pretty much just a blur. But that is not to say that it hasn’t been an eventful week, actually I’m kind of amazed when I look back at all the things that were packed into this past week.

I had Walt Goodridge come on my morning talk show, Island Issues a week ago, and we had a good discussion about where Saipan is heading, and what role each of us may play in it’s future. In case you’re not familiar with him, Walt is an author with quite a few books under his belt at this point, he also write a column each Wednesday in the Saipan Tribune called the Saipanpreneur Project, and he is the founder of the We Love Saipan internet network. I swear Walt’s brain is clicking away about 28 hours a day with all kinds of plans and ideas. I have invited him to be a regular guest on Island Issues to discuss his ideas and to hopefully inspire you listeners about some of your hidden potential as well. I believe he’s going to take me up on it, and I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

If you haven’t checked out the We Love Saipan web page, let me encourage you to do so, it’s at And if you’d like to write a little testimonial about why you love Saipan and have it included on the page, they are always looking for more people to be included. Especially if you have a web page or a blog, it is a great place to link to, and help build exposure for the network and for your web page as well.

As I read through some of the people’s blogs, I was finally pushed off my lazy backside to start my own blog. I have had people suggesting it for a long time, but I always thought it was too much work setting up a website and everything. That’s because I had never really checked out, it’s basically blogs for dummies. It takes all the work out of it, and you just click on the options for how you want your page to look, and it does the rest of it for you. Oh yeah, and the best part is, it’s absolutely free! So then you can upload pictures to your blog, it makes it very easy, you really don’t have to have any html knowledge at all. Then you just write whatever you want to say in your blog, just like you’d type it out in a regular Word document, and push the Publish button, and then you have it, your own blog.

This is truly a great way to get free exposure for Saipan, and to let other people see Saipan from your eyes. They can see the pictures you choose to put online, and hear what you think about things. This is a great way of countering that website, which shall remain nameless, that has nothing but bad things to say about Saipan. When Walt started the We Love Saipan website on December 6th of last year, it was ranked 155th in the Google search for Saipan. As of this morning, when I just checked it, it came up in the 10th position. The more people that connect to the network, and the more hits it gets, the higher it will climb in the Google search. Wouldn’t it be great to have a website promoting Saipan in a positive light be the first thing that comes up in a Google search? While this may not fix all the problems currently facing Saipan, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and it allows you to become a part of the solution.

And I have to admit, I’m enjoying blogging, it’s a way to put down your thoughts and observations and have them recorded before you forget them. It’s basically a modern day journal, only one that you let the world read. You can talk about anything you feel like, and make it as personal or impersonal as you wish. For me, it’s a way to talk about more things than I can cover in my weekly Food For Thought. So some of my blogs will be my thoughts about various issues or events, while others will be talking about my 27th wedding anniversary with Kelli, which we just celebrated on June the 7th. So just in case you don’t get enough of me each morning, and once a week with Food For Thought, now you can read my ramblings on my blog as well. I can’t guarantee that it will always be something you’ll be interested in, but then again you don’t have to read it if the title doesn’t interest you. I’m telling you, if I can do a blog, anybody can do a blog, it really is that easy. Mine is at

In my blog I’ve talked about having some of my underwater pictures published in an upcoming book, the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program, the meeting with Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, my sons new ferrets, and Kelli’s and my 27th wedding anniversary. Like I said, you can talk about anything you feel like. In my case, I usually don’t have nearly enough time in Food For Thought to talk about all the things I’d like to, so I find this is a good supplement. It allows me to go into other topics that might not make the cut for Food For Thought, and it allows me to talk about things that our family and friends in other locations might be interested in.

I had a couple topics I wanted to discuss today; one was the visit by Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and the other was the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program. I’m not going to say a whole lot about Secretary Kempthorne’s visit, but I did want to point out that I was very impressed with him as a person. He seems genuinely concerned about and interested in the CNMI, and said that he wants to make a difference. I believe him, and I expect that he will do whatever he can for us back in Washington, but we need to keep in mind we are only one very tiny part of his responsibilities. If you want to know more on my thoughts about his visit, you’re welcome to check out the comments about it on my blog.

I did want to spend a little bit of time today talking about the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship program. The Chamber has fundraisers throughout the year in which we raise money to give to select graduating high school seniors in the form of a college scholarship. That’s where the funds from the Corporate Challenge go, some of our mixers and socials are also fundraising tools for the scholarship fund. We also do raffles during the regular membership meetings to raise extra money for the scholarship fund. And we host debates of gubernatorial and senatorial candidates for the community, the proceeds of which go toward the scholarship program as well. We try to give out about $10,000 in scholarships each year, some years it’s a little more and others it might be a little less, but that’s our goal each year.

We announce the program each year to graduating high school seniors encouraging them to apply for the scholarships if they are headed for college. This year we had 19 students apply, each and every one of them very impressive in their own right. The problem is we only had 6 - $1,500 scholarships to give out. So members of the Education Committee interviewed all 19 students, trying to narrow down the list and figure out which ones we felt were the most deserving students. It’s not all just about academics, but of course that is a big part of it. We are also looking for students who understand what community service is all about and who have already started giving back to the community they live in.

If these students represent our future, then things are really looking up, they were a most impressive bunch. The only thing that bothers me about the whole process is that we have to turn any of the students down; they have all worked hard for their accomplishments. So the next time you see the Chamber of Commerce doing a fundraiser, please be generous and help us help this next generation of business leaders and professionals. Even though the scholarships were only for $1,500 each this year, every little bit helps when it comes to funding a college education, and every student was most appreciative.

This years Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship winners were Tikla Brown – who was home schooled this past year, Raneeza Cano from Grace Christian Academy, Henry Chan from Saipan International School, Emily Jang from Marianas High School, Bernadeth Piamonte from Marianas High School and Chellette San Nicolas from Northern Marianas Academy. Each and every one of them students who made their schools and parents very proud. Congratulations to each one of you and we all wish you the best of luck as you embark on this next phase of your life heading off to college.

And to those of you still in high school, keep those grades up and get involved in your community so that we can be interviewing you for the Saipan Chamber of Commerce scholarship when you’re a graduating senior.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

We finally have the answer to the minimum wage question, but what does that mean to us locally?

Food For Thought 6-1-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

We finally have the answer to one of the questions that has been looming over our heads for months now. We knew that the U.S. politicians, primarily the Democrats, have been pushing very hard for a federalization of our minimum wage, and a takeover of our immigration. As of last weekend, we now have an answer to the minimum wage question. Both the U.S. House and Senate passed an Iraq war-funding bill that included an increase in the minimum wage, and the President signed it into law last Friday, or our Saturday. The CNMI is now to be under the federal minimum wage, which is on the way up to $7.25 an hour.

We didn’t get the deal we were hoping for, which would have given us a .35-cent an hour increase, and then had a special wage board determine when and if further increases could be implemented without serious damage to the economy. But we did get a better deal than the one that many of us had feared. The minimum wage will go up .50-cents an hour, 60 days after being signed by the President, or on July 25th. Then it will go up .50-cents a year starting one year from the date of signing, or May 25, 2008. We were afraid that it would be going up .50-cents an hour every six months, which would have been pretty difficult for many businesses to swallow, especially in this depressed economy we’re currently experiencing. So our minimum wage will be $3.55 an hour on July 25th, then jumps to $4.05 an hour on May 25, 2008. From that point it goes up .50-cents an hour every year until we reach $7.25 an hour, which won’t be until May 25, 2014. That gives us a little breathing room, and time for us to hit bottom and hopefully start the recovery that will follow.

There is no doubt about the fact that this is very bad news for the remaining garment industry on Saipan. Several of them may be closing down immediately as they feel they cannot shoulder any increase whatsoever at this point and remain competitive. Others have said that $4 an hour is their break-even point, and anything beyond that means they will no longer be profitable. So with that being said, it is very realistic to assume that the complete end of the garment industry will happen no later than May 25, 2008. That means substantially less tax revenues coming in for the government, and a big reduction in the number of contract workers on Saipan. Of course that will also be affecting many other businesses as well, all the small mom and pop stores around the garment factories, and any other business that does business with the garment factories. It also means that we will no longer be shipping any product out of the CNMI, so the cost of incoming freight will be going up drastically as well.

One of the aspects of the minimum wage increase that has a lot of people worried is the effect it will have on house workers or maids, farmers, and fishermen, as these are all job categories that have their own separate minimum wage, which is much lower than our regular minimum wage. According to the Lt. Governor and Attorney General, who were both on my talk show, Island Issues, last week, fishermen will be exempt from this new minimum wage increase so it should not affect their salaries. Farmers may also be exempt, if they are employed in a business that offers the produce or product for sale, and the business has over 500 man hours in a pay period, in other words they would have to have at least 7 farmers employed, working full time.

The bad news comes for those who employ house workers, maids, gardeners and maintenance workers for their households. These categories will be affected by the new minimum wage increase, and it will take effect on July 25th, not on the renewal date of their contract. They will also be converted at that time for a salaried worker to an hourly worker, who will be paid a minimum of $3.55 an hour, and they will also be entitled to time and a half for everything worked over 40 hours a week. Right now many of the contracts for house workers are for $300 a month, and require them to work from 6 am to 6 pm. So if you cut your house workers down to 40 hours a week, you will have to start paying them $142 per week beginning July 25th, or in effect nearly doubling their salary. According to the Lt. Governor, there are some deductions that are allowed if you’re providing their housing and their meals. But the Attorney General, Matt Gregory cautions that you may be getting into legal trouble if there is a dispute as to the real value of the housing and food you’re providing. You also need to be warned that if you are asking your house workers to work in excess of 40 hours per week, you must pay them time and a half. Even if they offer to extra hours for you at no cost, you would be foolish to let them do it without properly compensating them for it. If they file a labor case against you when they leave alleging that you didn’t properly pay them for all overtime worked, you could be on the hook for thousands and thousands of dollars.

Just another word to the wise where house workers are concerned, you should start having them fill out timesheets, giving an accurate record of the hours they actually worked, and have them sign it at the end of each pay period. Then you should keep those records as long as the employee is still on island so you have proof of their hours worked.

Yes, it’s going to be more work and definitely more expensive to have maids or house workers from this point forward, but frankly, the house workers have been underpaid and taken advantage of for years and years here. They have been made to work very long hours for very little pay, and it’s time that situation was made right. Our lawmakers made this separate class of workers that was paid far below the minimum wage so they could have their own servants and workers and pay them as little as possible. It’s my belief that this is one of the biggest reasons that the critics of the CNMI have fought so hard to take over our minimum wage and have it incorporated with the rest of the country. They saw this as a travesty that we were bringing in contract workers to be our maids and house workers and paying them as so ridiculously low a wage. It was self-serving of the lawmakers to create such a class of working poor just for their own benefit, and they still have this same greedy, self-serving attitude.

There is a Labor Reform bill that is currently being debated in both houses. The lawmakers have been working on this bill for a year now, and it is supposed to fix many of the problems currently in our system. They were trying to get this bill out before the U.S. congress took any action, hoping that it would convince the U.S. that we were finally serious about cleaning up our own house. But the lawmakers couldn’t help but keeping their own self-serving interests included in this bill. In section 4952 of this bill, entitled, “Exit from the Commonwealth”, it says that a foreign national worker shall exit the Commonwealth within 15 days after the date of termination of the approved employment contract or renewal, except as provided for in this chapter. The very next section talks about exceptions for the periodic exit requirement. It says that a foreign national worker shall exit and remain absent from the Commonwealth for at least 6 months during every 42-month period. It goes on to say that this limitation does not apply to foreign national workers who are employed in professional or executive positions, or domestic workers. In the copy of the draft bill that I have, it describes an executive as someone making over $30,000 a year, and then goes on to clarify it even further.

So seriously, the only exemptions from the 6 month exit requirement are executives making over $30,000 a year and domestic workers, or maids? How do they come to the conclusion that executives and maids deserve to be in the same class and both be given exemptions to this law? I’m assuming that they figure it would be very difficult for a business to function without their key executives for 6 months every 3 ½ years, therefore it wouldn’t be a good idea to force businesses to do without their key people like that. But frankly, it’s going to be very difficult for many businesses to do without some of their key employees making less than $30,000 a year for 6 months too. Are they going to have to keep paying for that employee for those 6 months just to make sure they don’t take another job? And is the business going to have to try and hire someone to fill in for that employee for those 6 months? The lawmakers don’t really seem to care the impact this will have on businesses, yet look how they continue to take care of themselves. They made sure to exempt domestic workers from the 6-month exit requirement. God forbid that they should have to pick up after themselves, do their own laundry or cook their own meals for 6 months. So in other words, they see what a disruption it would be in their lives to not have their maids for 6 months, but they don’t seem to care about the disruption to businesses to have to do without employees for 6 months. Now if you ask the legislators, they will tell you it’s because the maids have become like family to them, and their children think of them as second mothers, therefore it would be very disrupting to the family unit to have to send the maids back for 6 months. But how many of you would work your family members like a dog, requiring them to work 12-15 hours a day, 6 days a week, sometimes 7, and only give them $300 a month for it? I suppose there are some legislators up there that would consider doing that to their own family members, but honestly I find it deplorable. And we wonder why the U.S. doesn’t trust us to get our own orders in affair, and to fix our problems. This is a classic example of even when the legislators try to fix a problem, as in the Labor Reform Act, they still can’t get it right and still try to exempt themselves from any pain or inconvenience. Until we show the U.S. that we really mean business, and are going to fix things properly, we should expect no less from them, we asked for this. Thanks legislators, evidently your counterparts in the U.S. Congress and Senate are paying attention, and they have heard you loudly and clearly. Again, do I really need to remind anyone why it’s time to clean house in the legislature in this coming election? This is the same kind of self-serving, garbage legislation they’ve been producing for years, and they still don’t get it. They are not in a class above the rest of us, but it seems that they have come to believe they are. Again, I believe there are a few exceptions up there, but I can count them all on one hand, with a finger or two left over. That’s pretty bad when you consider we have 27 legislators.

Yes, a minimum wage increase was long over due, it should have happened years ago when we promised the U.S. that we would raise our minimum wage. But since we couldn’t be bothered to keep our own promises, the U.S. is helping us to keep it now, and frankly, it could be a lot worse than it is. We should be counting our blessings that we have 7 years to catch up to the national minimum wage. Again, our own lawmakers could have, and should have done something about this long ago, but no, they were too busy trying to figure out how to get away with paying their own domestic workers next to nothing. They succeeded for years, but now the party’s over, and it’s time to start paying people accordingly. Now you need to decide if you really need maids, gardeners and maintenance workers around your house at the new rates. If you do, that’s fine, just pay them accordingly and don’t try cutting any corners, or making them work overtime without paying for it. If you do, I have a hunch it will come back to bite you in the butt when that worker leaves to go home. If you don’t need them or can’t afford them, you need to go down to the Department of Labor and see if you can get out of the contract early. But don’t think you can just keep paying them $300 a month after July 25th and get away with it. I believe that all contract workers will know their rights very soon, and even if they let you get away with paying them a lower amount for now, they will file a complaint against you before leaving, they would be foolish not to. If you have questions about any of this, I recommend you contact the Department of Labor immediately and get the facts. You simply can’t afford to not understand what is happening or how it will affect you.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

Goodbye Vinae, you will be remembered and missed!

Food For Thought 5-25-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

This is one of those weeks when I knew what I wanted to talk about the week before. There are some very pressing issues just begging for attention and comment, that all changed though last Sunday afternoon. One of the friends that I was supposed to go diving with was late because of an accident on middle road. He told me it was a bad accident, but I didn’t really think much more about it until the next morning. Then I read the story about this beautiful young lady who had just recently turned 17 who was tragically killed in the accident. I sat there for a while feeling very bad for the family, wondering how they were handling this horrible event.

But then the story was brought even closer home as one of my announcers came in and told me who this young lady was, and that I knew her. Her father Ben used to work for me as a salesman, and I still count him as a good friend. I have talked with her mother Nadine many times in the past, and have always enjoyed her company as well. But I have also spent time talking with Vinae, and was always so impressed with her. Now that I knew who it was that we lost in this horrible accident my heart was literally breaking and the pain in my chest was palpable.

It has been a couple years since I have seen Vinae. She always used to come in to wait for her dad when he was working here. I remember the first time Ben introduced me to her, he told me she was a regular listener to my Food For Thought and a fan. I believe she was 12 at that time, and I wondered why a 12 year old would be interested in the things I was talking about, and how much of it she truly understood. But as I talked to her and listened to her, it was obvious this was no ordinary 12 year old. Vinae seemed to have an intelligence and intellect that went far beyond her years. Here was a girl who did understand the issues, and was trying to learn more about them all the time. She obviously truly loved this island she called home, and was concerned about it, and what was happening to it. Whenever I would see her sitting out front waiting for her dad, I would invite her to come in and sit on my couch, since it was more comfortable and to talk about things. She usually declined saying she didn’t want to be a bother, so I would chat with her out there for a few minutes.

As much as I hated losing Ben as a salesman when he left, I think I hated losing those opportunities to chat for a few minutes with Vinae just as much. She was everything that’s right about these islands, she was indeed what we need for the future, a beautiful, intelligent young woman who is concerned about the issues facing us all and has spent plenty of time thinking about them.

Even back when I knew her, it was obvious that she was the kind of big sister that the rest of her siblings loved and looked up to. She was beautiful, poised and confident, just the sort of older sister that every younger sister wants to be like. She had a smile that seemed to just take over a room when she graced you with it. So it came to no surprise to me when I read about her accomplishments in the Miss Teen pageant. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that she walked away with the bulk of the awards. And I smiled to myself as I read that she was truly impressive as she answered the judge’s questions. I bet they were as amazed and impressed with her as I was. I’m sorry I missed out on seeing her in that pageant, and I’m sorry I’ve missed the opportunity of having those little chats with her the last couple of years.

Right now is our time to grieve, to remember all the wonderful things about Vinae, and how she managed to touch each of us in a very personal way. It’s a time to share our stories of her, to laugh and cry with each other, and to be there for her family and let them know we’re there for them. No, this is not the first death that most of us have had to deal with, but somehow that doesn’t seem to make it any easier. She was taken away from us much, much too early. She still had so much to offer and give, she was really just getting to the point where she was going to start living her life.

I talked about losing my good friend and fellow Rotarian Elias Okamura a couple years ago, and how hard that was. But Elias had lived a long and full life; it’s just that most of us didn’t want to let him go, we were used to having Elias there all the time. I do still think of Elias every week, and still miss him all the time, and yes, I still shed tears when I think of him and remember him occasionally. Elias left a real imprint on my life, and I will always be grateful for it. Elias was someone I respected immensely and always looked up to, he was the kind of person I was proud to claim was my friend. To me, Vinae is in the same class as Elias. No, she hasn’t lived as many years or accomplished as many things, but the people she has touched she has affected just as deeply. And from the people I have talked to this past week who knew Vinae, I know that she had that same effect on people.

Depending on your religious views, most of us believe that after death there is a new and glorious life waiting for you. And we try to console ourselves by telling each other that they are better off now and in a much better place. But the truth of the matter is, that death just stinks for those of us that are left behind. Our hearts are breaking and the tears just don’t seem to ever quit. And it’s ok to grieve, to cry over the pain of losing a loved one. I don’t agree with those who tell you that you have to be tough at times like this, and not let your emotions show. Robots don’t have emotions, humans do, and it’s only natural to feel and experience them.

When I lost my father shortly before moving out here, there was one incident that meant the world to me, and still sticks with me to this day. There was an older gentleman, Jim, who had a quarrel with my father years before, and neither of them ever got along after that. I had moved back to my hometown and had become friends with this older gentleman - we were golfing buddies. My father had ended his own life and left me pretty much totally devastated. On the first night of visitation at the funeral home, Jim was the first person to arrive. He was a retired state trooper, a bear of a man who had a reputation of being tough as steel. He had this tough, calloused exterior that most people never saw through, but for whatever reason, he let me get to know the real Jim. He walked in with tears in his eyes; he came straight to me and just wrapped me up in a big bear hug. We both just openly sobbed together. He didn’t have any magic words to make everything better or to make the pain go away, but he was willing to be there and to share the pain with me. That gesture meant more to me than anything else, and he knew it, which is why he was there and was willing to show his tender side, something which most people, even some of his family members never knew existed. The last time I was in the states, Jim was dying of cancer, and didn’t have much time left. He was refusing all visitors, as he didn’t want anyone to see him in that condition. I called his wife and told her I was back for a short time and asked if there was any way that Jim might agree to see me. When he found out it was me, he told me of course I could come. It was hard seeing my old golfing buddy withering away and in that condition, and I didn’t have any words of wisdom or magic cures. But Jim knew why I was there, and that visit meant the world to both of us. Words didn’t really need to be spoken; it was the hearts that were communicating.

I share all this to let you know that it’s ok if you don’t have any magic words to say to the family or loved ones when you go to Vinae’s funeral, just being there to share a hug and the tears will mean more than any words ever could. This is a time when the family needs all the love and support they can get. It is appropriate that the funeral is on Memorial Day. The public viewing for Vinae starts at 9 am Monday morning at the Mount Carmel Cathedral, the Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 am and Internment services will be at noon. I would encourage you to go to the funeral for Vinae if you knew her or the family and to be there for them, just showing them that you love them and care.
And for those who didn’t know Vinae, or the family, I would like to encourage you to go to the new Veteran’s Cemetery in Marpi for the Memorial Day Service honoring our fallen soldiers. We all owe these fallen soldiers a debt of gratitude we can never repay, and at the very least we owe the families of the soldiers that are left behind our support. This is such a small way to show our support and appreciation, but it is one that truly makes a difference to the families left behind. Too many times Memorial Day is just another day off, and another excuse to go the beach for a party. This year let’s remember what Memorial Day is really all about and pay our proper respects to our heroes and show our support to their families. You will still have all afternoon for your parties and get togethers, but let’s pack out our new Veteran’s Cemetery and show the families of our fallen soldiers that we truly appreciate their sacrifice and service. The service starts at 9 am Monday morning at the Veteran’s Cemetery, which is located on the road going to Bonzai Cliff.

Vinae you will be remembered and missed, and to all of our fallen soldiers, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM