Massive layoffs in the tech sector have left hundreds of workers living in the United States on temporary visas with little time to find another job or they will have to leave the country. And many say they receive inadequate guidance from the companies that sponsored them.
The tech industry has long relied on the H-1B visa program to meet its needs for workers in specialized fields such as IT and engineering. Amazon, Lyft, Meta, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter have sponsored at least 45,000 H-1B workers over the past three years, according to a Bloomberg analysis of US Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Reports compiled by employees of Meta and Twitter indicate that the latest round of job cuts at those two companies alone affected at least 350 immigrants. H-1B holders who lose their jobs can legally stay in the United States for only 60 days without finding new employers to sponsor them.
Many people with H-1B visas have lived in the United States for years, awaiting permanent citizenship. Now they are frantically searching for jobs, along with thousands of other tech workers in a newly competitive job market. Some have mortgages, student loans, and kids in school.
At the same time, many large employers have frozen hiring, and recruitment is generally slower during the holidays. With deadlines looming, desperate job seekers have turned to their professional networks to find a way to stay. Some made direct calls on LinkedIn, generating threads with hundreds of responses, many citing job postings in the United States and abroad. Crowdsourced spreadsheets and referrals abound on social media.
More than a dozen recently laid off workers spoke with Bloomberg; they requested anonymity to avoid angering their former employers or jeopardizing their job search. A former Twitter designer, a 30-something who has lived in the United States for 14 years and was laid off in November along with 3,500 colleagues, says she had imagined this scenario for a long time, living in fear of having to pack everything up and leave on country on the fly. “There’s always this thing that goes back and forth in our minds,” she said, “Am I going to have to move?”
The H-1B program allows U.S. employers to recruit foreign workers with college degrees in technical fields where there has historically been a shortage of Americans. Visas are issued for three years, with possible extensions. The number of people licensed each year is capped at 85,000 and demand is high, especially among Indian professionals. The median salary for an H-1B worker was $106,000 in the third quarter, according to data from the US Department of Labor. But workers in high-tech companies earn much more. The median salary for an H-1B worker at Meta, Salesforce, and Twitter was around $175,000, not including big bonuses and stock options.
The layoffs had a particularly big impact on Indians, who tend to have temporary visas longer than other foreign groups due to delays in obtaining permanent residency (a green card). Each country is generally entitled to a maximum of 7% of employment-based green cards issued each year, so while there are almost half a million Indian nationals in the queue, only around 10 000 green cards per year are available to them. A Congress report estimated that Indians filing in 2020 would have to wait up to 195 years for a green card. Chinese workers had to wait 18 years; for people in the rest of the world, it’s less than a year.
Earlier this year, an Indian H-1B holder had just bought a house in Seattle to start a job at Meta. Eleven months later, he is looking for a company to hire him and sponsor his visa transfer. The father of two, who has an MBA and has lived in the United States for 15 years, says he hopes to find a job as a technical product or program manager. He scoured his networks on LinkedIn, joined dedicated WhatsApp groups, and submitted application after application. “You have to spend months preparing for some of these jobs,” he says over the phone, to the sound of his young children singing in the background. “It’s hard to tell yourself that even after 15 years of being properly documented, you still may not have the means to stay. The path to residency is broken.”
Companies, which must pay for H-1B workers to return to their home countries if they must leave the United States after losing their jobs, have offered varying levels of support for immigrants. Five former Twitter employees on temporary visas said the company provided little assistance and was unclear about when their 60-day grace period began. When a worker asked for clarification, a company representative recommended finding his own lawyer, as the law could be interpreted in different ways. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Aditya Tawde, an Indian engineer who works at LinkedIn, calls US corporate immigration support “minimal.” He was fired by TripAdvisor at the start of the pandemic. After taking two days to process his dismissal, he interviewed 25 different employers and found a job with just two weeks on his visa. “It’s natural to feel sad and angry,” he says.
A USCIS spokesperson said the agency is exploring policy options to address challenges facing immigrant communities and is committed to increasing access to immigration benefits.
Vidhi Agrawal, an Indian visa holder who was unaffected by the layoffs, worked with a friend to create a database of H-1B workers seeking employment. After two weeks, he counted more than 350 people. She and her friend contacted recruiters on their behalf to help them. Agrawal, who works at DataBricks and moved to the Bay Area from India 11 years ago, is among the backlog of green cards. “It’s scary having a visa and losing your job, especially when you have kids and have to uproot yourself and leave,” she says.
Cecy Cervantes, a recruiter at a 15-person tech start-up in New York, said LinkedIn had gone “crazy” with job postings from people on visas who suddenly lost their jobs. She woke up Monday last week to 47 posts instead of the usual 10, and she’s already interviewed four people on H-1B visas who were fired by Twitter and one by Meta.
Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who announced 11,000 job cuts this month, told employees that visa holders would get “notice periods” – which can buy them more time before their visa clocks start ticking – and help from “dedicated immigration specialists”. But a former Meta employee says the consultation was not helpful. The lawyer had offered similar advice to Twitter: “Find your own lawyer.” Others said they appreciated the support.
Stripe, a payment processing software company that cut more than 1,000 jobs this month, offered consultation and help changing visa status where possible. Lyft said it was prepared to keep workers on its payroll off work for a few extra weeks to extend their clocks. Amazon is giving workers 60 days to find a different job internally before pulling them off the books, extending their visa deadline, according to three former employees. Salesforce declined to say whether it offered immigration assistance to those it terminated.
“There’s serious pressure to find a job,” says Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney at McEntee Law Group in Chicago. “The problem is the countdown.”
Some have already lost hope. A 34-year-old product manager fired by a major fintech company says he is half-heartedly trying to find a job in the next few weeks, but has largely decided to return to India. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he has lived in the United States for seven years. Returning to his hometown of Bengaluru can be a “blessing in disguise”, he says – he’ll be able to spend more time with his aging parents and start his own business, which is hard to do while you’re on a visa. “I’m exhausted,” he says of the backlog of green cards. “I see no light at the end of this tunnel.”
-With Alex Barinka, Jackie Davalos and Matt Day
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