By: Laura Wides-Munoz & Paul Wiseman
Kelly Parker was thrilled when she landed her dream job in 2012 providing tech support for Harley-Davidson’s Tomahawk, Wisconsin, plants. The divorced mother of three hoped it was the beginning of a new career with the motorcycle company.
The dream didn’t last long. Parker claims she was laid off one year later after she trained her replacement, a newly arrived worker from India. Now she has joined a federal lawsuit alleging the global staffing firm that ran Harley-Davidson’s tech support discriminated against American workers — in part by replacing them with temporary workers from South Asia. The firm, Infosys Ltd, denies wrongdoing and contends, as many companies do, that it has faced a shortage of talent and specialised skill sets in the US. Like other firms, Infosys wants Congress to allow more of these temporary workers.
But amid calls for expanding the nation’s so-called H-1B visa programme, there is growing pushback from Americans who argue the programme has been hijacked by staffing companies that import cheaper, lower-level workers to replace more expensive US employees — or keep them from getting hired in the first place.]
“It’s getting pretty frustrating when you can’t compete on salary for a skilled job,’’ said Rich Hajinlian, a veteran computer programmer from the Boston area. “You hear references all the time that these big companies… can’t find skilled workers. I am a skilled worker.’’
Hajinlian, 56, who develops his own web applications on the side, said he applied for a job in April through a headhunter and that the potential client appeared interested, scheduling a longer interview. Then, said Hajinlian, the headhunter called back and said the client had gone with an H-1B worker whose annual salary was about $10,000 less. “I didn’t even get a chance to negotiate down,’’ he said.
The H-1B programme allows employers to temporarily hire workers in specialty occupations. The government issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas to businesses every year, and recipients can stay up to six years. Although no one tracks exactly how many H-1B holders are in the US, experts estimate there are at least 6,00,000 at any one time. Skilled guest workers can also come in on other types of visas.
An immigration bill passed in the US Senate last year would have increased the number of annually available H-1B visas to 1,80,000 while raising fees and increasing oversight, although language was removed that would have required all companies to consider qualified US workers before foreign workers are hired.
The House of Representatives never acted on the measure. With immigration reform considered dead this year in Congress, President Barack Obama last week declared he will use executive actions to address some changes. It is not known whether H-1B will be on the agenda.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among the high-profile executives pushing for more H-1Bs. The argument has long been that there aren’t enough qualified American workers to fill certain jobs, especially in science, engineering and technology. Advocates also assert that some visa holders will stay and become entrepreneurs.
Critics say there is no across-the-board shortage of American tech workers, and that if there were, wages would be rising rapidly. Instead, wage gains for software developers have been modest, while wages have fallen for programmers.
The debate over whether foreign workers are taking jobs isn’t new, but for years it centered on low-wage sectors like agriculture and construction. The high-skilled visas have thrust a new sector of American workers into the fray: the middle class.
Last month, three tech advocacy groups launched a labour boycott against Infosys, IBM and the global staffing and consulting company ManpowerGroup, citing a “pattern of excluding US workers from job openings on US soil’’.
They say Manpower, for example, last year posted US job openings in India but not in the United States.
“We have a shortage in the industry all right — a shortage of fair and ethical recruiting and hiring,’’ said Donna Conroy, director of Bright Future Jobs, a group of tech professionals fighting to end what it calls “discriminatory hiring that is blocking us… from competing for jobs we are qualified to do.’’
Infosys spokesman Paul de Lara responded that the firm encourages “diversity recruitment”, while spokesman Doug Shelton said IBM considers all qualified candidates “without regard to citizenship and immigration status”. Manpower issued a statement saying it “adopts the highest ethical standards and complies with all applicable laws and regulations when hiring individuals”.
Much of the backlash against the H-1B and other visa programmes can be traced to whistleblower Jay Palmer, a former Infosys employee. In 2011, Palmer supplied federal investigators with information that helped lead to Infosys paying a record $34 million settlement last year. Prosecutors had accused the company of circumventing the law by bringing in lower-paid workers on short-term executive business visas instead of using H-1B visas.
Last year, IBM paid $44,000 to the US Justice Department to settle allegations its job postings expressed a preference for foreign workers. And a September trial is set against executives at the staffing company Dibon Solutions, accused of illegally bringing in foreign workers on H-1B visas without having jobs for them — a practice known as “benching”.
In court papers, Parker claims she was given positive reviews by supervisors, including at Infosys, which she maintains oversaw her work and the decision to let her go. The only complaint: Her desk was messy and she’d once been late.
Infosys is seeking a dismissal, in part on grounds that it never hired or fired Parker. Parker was hired by a different subcontractor and kept on, initially, after Infosys began working with Harley-Davidson.
Stanford University Law School fellow Vivek Wadwha, a startup adviser, said firms are so starved for talent they are buying up other companies to obtain skilled employees. If there’s a bias against Americans, he said, it’s an age bias based on the fact that older workers may not have the latest skills. More than 70 per cent of H-1B petitions approved in 2012 were for workers between the ages of 25 and 34.
Jennifer Wedel of Fort Worth, Texas, publicly challenged Obama on the visa issue in 2012, making headlines when she asked him via a public online chat about the number of foreign workers being hired — given that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, couldn’t find work. Wedel said her husband eventually found a job in the health care industry, taking a $40,000 pay cut.
To her, the issue isn’t about a shortage of workers who have the right skills. Put simply, she said: “It’s the money.’’