Visa rules affect nurses
Canadian health care workers need papers
June 26, 2004
BY KIM NORRIS
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
New visa screening rules to take effect July 27 could prevent hundreds of Canadian nurses and other health care workers from coming across the border to work in Michigan.
Concrete numbers are difficult to come by, but the American Hospital Association estimates 13,000 to 15,000 health care workers may be affected by the new federal requirements. An estimated 3,000 health care workers commute from Canada to work in Michigan facilities, according to the AHA.
Consequently, a coalition of metro Detroit health organizations organized late last year to educate their workers about the new rules and encourage them to apply for the certification that would allow them to keep their U.S. jobs.
The coalition also has been lobbying Michigan's elected officials in Washington for relief from the rules - either in the form of a deadline extension or a more permanent solution that would exempt Canadian workers.
On April 27, 15 U.S. representatives from Michigan sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge asking him for a deadline extension and reconsideration of the requirements as they apply to foreign workers who have "established a work history in the United States."
"We haven't gotten a response to the letter, so it's very hard to tell you what they will do," U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Friday.
Local health care administrators are hopeful for a reprieve, but not banking on it.
"There have been a lot of problems with the certificates, a lot of errors and such, so we are concerned," said Maryanne Rizza, in corporate recruitment for St. John Health, where slightly more than half of the 254 workers who have applied for certification have received it.
Canadian workers are particularly affected because many have been working in the United States under so-called Trade NAFTA status for 10 years, something that exempted them from certification required of workers from other countries. The waiver no longer applies as of July 27.
The rules apply to seven health care professions: registered nurses, medical lab technicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, speech audiologists and physician assistants. Canadian workers fill all those titles, but nurses make up the largest population of health care commuters from Canada.
The six entities that formed the coalition - St. John Health, Oakwood Health, the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, Beaumont, and the Red Cross of Southeast Michigan - estimate that they have 1,337 workers among them who are affected by the visa screening laws. As of Wednesday, 92 percent of the workers had applied for their certification and 63 percent of those who applied - or 784 workers - had received certification. That means around 455 workers are awaiting the certification that will allow them to cross the border on July 27.
Both Henry Ford and DMC are making contingency plans for workers who do not have the necessary documentation on the 26th. They are rearranging shifts and assignments and arranging for temporary housing on this side of the border where workers can live until their certification comes through.
"We're beginning to take a look at what-if scenarios," said Maureen Henson, director of recruitment strategies for Henry Ford Health System. "We're providing housing so they can stay here. We've had face-to-face employee meetings and appointed a dedicated person here to act as ombudsman with the certifying agency."
At Oakwood, where 23 workers were still awaiting certification as of Wednesday, the hospital has arranged for noncertified workers to take vacation time until their documentation comes through, on the assumption the delay will be short-lived, said Tom Warbeck, spokesman for the Dearborn health system.
St. John's Rizza said the health system is offering housing and the opportunity for contingent and part-time employees to work more hours.