Worsening situation poses tough challenges for Indian professionals on H-1B workers.
Mahi B., who works in the technology sector in Texas, recently received some very upsetting news during these times of uncertainty caused by the spreading coronavirus in the United States.
His employer informed him that, due to Covid-19, a major client has shown unwillingness to work on future projects, and, for the time being, work has to be scaled down.
Having been given just a fortnight’s notice, Mahi is perplexed about what he would do once he is left jobless in the current crisis.
“It’s not that anyone could offer me a job anytime soon,” he said. “I am on H-1B, so it is difficult to stay out here without any job. I have never faced such harrowing times in life.”
An H-1B visa holder will have to find another job and transfer his visa to the new employer within 60 days. Otherwise, he or she will have to leave the country.
With an ongoing national emergency, coupled with a crippling economy, options are limited at the moment for many like Mahi, who are in the United States on a work-based visa.
With the pandemic hitting the country hard and wrecking its economy, the H-1B community is now bracing for the worst.
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Bureau of Labor figures indicate that as many as 10 million people may have lost jobs by the end of March, which is more than the amount of jobs lost during the entire Great Recession of the previous decade that lasted more than two years.
Large-scale mass layoffs haven’t affected H-1B employees just yet. That’s because the information technology field, where a majority of these visa holders are employed, has not been affected by the countrywide lockdown, which has badly impacted sectors such as transportation and hospitality.
However, if the lockdown continues far beyond April and well into the summer, the IT sector is not going to be immune from it. The first group of H-1B holders likely to lose jobs is those who are working in non-critical areas and those working for consulting companies.
“In the current situation, it is expected that a good number of noncritical IT projects in the government sector as well as the private sector be cancelled, or postponed,” said Johnson Myalil, an immigration lawyer at High-Tech Immigration Law Group, PLLC, based in Reston, Virginia.
“A significant number of H-1B workers are involved in these projects through consulting companies and they are going to have a very difficult time. If an H-1B worker is terminated, in most cases, she or he may get 60 days’ time to depart or get another job.”
Myalil said with the country expecting unemployment rates of anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent in the coming weeks, “it may not be easy” for H-1B workers to find another “qualifying job.” He added, “Already there are demands from anti-immigrant groups to suspend or limit the H-1B program.”
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Last week, primetime Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson criticized the Department of Homeland Security for going ahead with the H-1B and H2 visa program in the midst of a major economic disaster.
Terming the visa program as a “well-documented fraud,” the pundit said H-1B visas are “used to import tens of thousands of tech visas from India so the Silicon Valley can profit from a cheaper work force.”
Continuing his tirade, Carlson said, “The big winners in this scheme are companies like Apple, Google and IBM, which take in H-1B workers every year. American workers are ordered to train their foreign replacements and fired once they are longer useful.”
Immigration attorneys say a number of companies have already started filing amendment forms with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to make their full-time employees part-time.
In such a scenario, an employee’s salary will be drastically reduced depending on the number of hours that will be cut.
There are any number of reasons why companies may terminate or reduce the hours of H-1B workers. First and foremost, employers are obligated to pay H-1B workers as long as the employees are on the companies’ payroll. Many companies in the IT industry, especially those that are in consulting businesses, would find it difficult to keep all their H-1B workers on payroll if their projects are halted.
“An employer loses one big client, a project is not alive; and suddenly someone is jobless,” said Aparna Dave, an immigration lawyer in Gaitherburg, MD, explaining the precarious position of H-1B workers in the consulting industry.
Since mid-March when President Donald Trump decaled a national emergency and issued guidelines asking people to avoid large social gatherings of 10 or more people, a huge number of American information technology companies have been encouraging their workers to work from home.
However, for some IT workers on H-1B, due to data security concerns and confidentiality requirements, working from home may not be an option.
Another dilemma faced by many employers is that even if an employee is willing to telecommute, because of Labor Condition Agreement (LCA) regulations, he or she will not be able to work from an area specified in the agreement. In other words, if the employee lives in an area outside of the location mentioned in the LCA application, an amendment needs to be filed.
In all these situations, it is the consulting industry, where a majority of Indian H-1B workers are employed, that is affected most.
Finding a new job within 60 days a challenge
While legal experts advise that, given the circumstances, the best bet would be to ask one’s current employer if it can accommodate one in any other project, for those who are losing their jobs the going is really tough.
“These are unprecedented times,” said Nancy A., another Indian working in this country on H-1B visa. “None of us had ever imagined that a situation like this would arise. With premium processing shut, the fate for many on visas is currently in a limbo.”
“While I am lucky to be on a project which is ongoing for next two months,” she said. “Should the situation arise, where I find myself with no ongoing work, I would try to see if I could ask for PTO or paid time off from my employer to buy some time.”
One of the biggest worries of those on H-1B visas getting laid-off during these times is that they would have to travel back within the grace period of 60 days.
“I have been hearing situations where people are panicking to find out how they can extend the stay beyond the grace period,” said Amit Patel from Colorado.
“As in the current climate for someone with a family and kids it’s like a double-edged sword. Even traveling, when the airlines open is a risky proposition.”
Recently, Dan Nandan, who runs Hire IT People Inc, a staffing company that has offices in East Brunswick, NJ, and Washington, DC, started an online petition urging the White House to temporarily extend the grace period from 60 days to 180 days.
“Many H-1Bs are now in a dire situation and many face lay-offs,” he told the American Bazaar. “If they cannot find employment in 60 days, it helps in extension of time until the Covid vanishes. So, they can be here avoiding leaving the country in the current situation.”
As of Monday evening, the petition has received more than 44,600 signatures. If it receives 100,000 signatures, the White House will have to respond.
Some who have lost their jobs or are apprehensive of losing them are looking at applying for a B-1/B-2 visitor visa in order to stay in the country legally.
Sneha M. also lost her job recently due to the Covid-19 crisis. “I was on STEM OPT (optional practical training) and recently was asked to resume work only after the crisis starts getting better,” she said. “I am now left with no choice but to consult a lawyer on what should be my options going forward.”
As the layoffs become a reality most people are caught in a difficult situation as many also wonder about health insurance. Having private medical insurance is both costly and needs a long commitment.
Not panicking yet
Across America, in several industries, workers are being furloughed. For instance, the hospitality giant Marriot furloughed 3,200 employees — out of a work force of 4,000 — in its Bethesda, MD, corporate office.
But furloughing is not an option employers of H-1B workers have. Because of the legal requirement, hours and salaries of H-1B workers cannot be reduced without filing an amendment with the USCIS.
Immigration lawyer Dave pointed out that the USCIS has not come out with any notification regarding furloughs and reduced hours. “Ultimately USCIS will have to come up with some sort of rulings on furloughs,” she said.
Some immigration lawyers are asking their H-1B employer and employee clients to explore if the workers can take their sick leave and vacation period during these tough times because, while on vacation, employees do get healthcare and other benefits.
Dave said the H-1B community is not panicking yet. “So far I have not seen a situation where everyone is panicking,” she said. “Most employers have projects that last for at least three months. Once this three, or four, or five months are gone, we don’t know what the situation is going to be.
(The last names of H-1B employees quoted in this story have been withheld because they requested anonymity.)
USCIS reaches H-1B visa cap for 2018-2019 fiscal year (April 7, 2018)
Anti-H-1B group sues the federal government to seek data from USCIS (April 20, 2018)
Trump administration may soon end H-4 Visa Rule: report (February 1, 2018)
Stronger economy may lead to more H-1B petitions (January 22, 2018)
Tech industry urges USCIS not to cancel H-4 spouses’ work permits (January 19, 2018)
Chuck Grassley again denounces H-1B visa program (January 18, 2018)
USCIS says it’s not ending H-1B visa extensions (January 9, 2018)
DHS mulling major change to H-1B visa program (January 2, 2018)