Construction of power substation

(Nahira Montcourt / The Weekly Journal)

At a time when the administration is initiating the island’s reconstruction projects, the Associated General Contractors of America – Puerto Rico Chapter (AGC-PR) still continues its lobbying with the White House for the approval of a program that would allow thousands of resident immigrants be included in the island’s workforce.

Under the ‘Significant Public Benefit Parole Program’ more than 20,000 workers living in Puerto Rico since November 2020, who are qualified and available to work in the reconstruction projects, but whose immigration status is undefined, could be added to the local workforce.

Currently, there is an allocation of $55 billion in federal funds for reconstruction (only in construction work), for which at least 50,000 additional workers will be needed to complete the investment in a 10-year period, or at a rate of $5 billion annually. According to data provided by the ACG-PR, the construction industry has just over 30,000 employees.

ACG-PR president Eduardo Pardo pointed their lobbying is “for people who are already living here [Puerto Rico],” and can demonstrate so, to give them first, the opportunity to enter into the formal economy and, second, the opportunity to legitimize their immigration status.

According to ACG-PR calculations, the average number of construction workers required for every million dollars in reconstruction projects is 8.81 employees.

Pardo stressed that, if the number of workers required for the reconstruction projects is not reached, the deadline for completing the reconstruction and modernization of the infrastructure will be delayed by an additional four years, for a total of 14 years.

The benefits of the Parole program are offered for, but not limited to, humanitarian reasons, law enforcement and national security reasons, or foreign or national policy considerations. If approved, this would the first time the program is used for reconstruction purposes.

Pardo added that, since would be beneficiaries currently live and work in Puerto Rico, they would not represent a burden for the government because they already have a place to live and would have a source of income.

“Using these people is not an additional burden to our infrastructure. Bringing in people from abroad would be more difficult because of the lack of housing. It would be difficult finding where you are going to house the people you are bringing,” Pardo said while acknowledging that the focus will be mainly on the Dominican community in Puerto Rico.

The largest group of immigrants in Puerto Rico is made up by the Dominican community. According to the Dominican Consulate in Puerto Rico, there are some 225,000 Dominican immigrants residing in the island, of which 60,000 have obtained the American citizenship. Also, some 100,000 are legal residents. If the Consulate’s calculations are correct, there are 165,000 eligible migrants for the Parole program.

In order for the Significant Public Benefit Parole Program to be approved, a permit granted by President Biden is required, to allow people living in an American jurisdiction with an undefined immigration status to become part of the formal economy.

Pardo further explained that, although there is the H2-B visa, which provides for the bringing of foreign labor, “it is not functional for the construction industry, due to the magnitude, urgency and extent of the need that Puerto Rico has for its reconstruction.

He added that H2-B visas must be obtained more than six months in advance of need, a process not coinciding with construction bidding procedures.

Secretary of the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, for its Spanish acronym), Gabriel Maldonado, is not surprised by the slowness of the process in Washington, since such authorization would be an exception to what has been granted to migrants from other countries.

“It is not surprising that something like this takes time to materialize because of its magnitude and impact. This would be the first time that it would be given a twist to tie it to the need to have the necessary workforce to carry out the reconstruction after a major disaster,” Maldonado said.

The official emphasized that his agency will prioritize impacting the one and a half million Puerto Rican residents who are out of the labor force.

“There are always initiatives that attend to the Puerto Rican worker which, for me, is always a priority. Of course, with such a broad reconstruction process, we know we need to hire local workers, as well as having to import labor from abroad,” Maldonado acknowledged.

As part of the measures directed at increasing the construction workforce in the island, the government increased the minimum wage for skilled and non-skilled workers to $15 and $11 per hour, respectively.

In a press release distributed earlier this week the DTRH announced it will be sponsoring a forum directed at construction industry employers on how to bring and hire temporary foreign workers to the U.S. and its territories for non-agricultural work.

“Puerto Rico’s reconstruction and the thousands of millions of dollars destined for that purpose depend greatly on the existence of enough labor to culminate the different construction projects… Therefore, we are advising employers in the construction sector on the process of how to acquire H-2B Visas for foreign workers and comply with applicable laws and regulations,” said Maldonado.

Department of State Secretary Omar Marrero said on his part, “the goal of this event is to provide additional tools to local contractors so they can hire the necessary labor to execute the reconstruction projects”

In the meantime, Central Office for Recuperation, Reconstruction and Resilience (COR3) director Manuel A. Laboy reported a total of 232 unspecified projects from the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), the Department of Education and some projects of the Public Housing Administration are in the “execution phase,” which does not necessarily mean they are under construction. As a matter of fact, only 33 of said unspecified projects are under construction. The investment on those projects has a reported total of $172 million.

Regarding completed projects, 43 have been reported with an approximate value of $37 million.

The balance confirms mayor reconstruction projects are still in the pipeline with no apparent deadline set yet.

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