March 7, 2015
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Last month, the Southern California Edison Company made headlines when it announced that it would fire about 500 American workers and replace them with H-1B visa holders. Adding to the displaced workers’ plight, they would have to train their substitutes. As one fired worker said, he lost his job to someone with “a couple of years of experience.”
The practice of replacing Americans — especially in the high tech industry — with overseas workers has been ongoing since 1990, when Congress first authorized the H-1B visa.
IT employers have consistently argued that the United States suffers from a shortage of skilled labor which requires them to hire overseas workers.
Last summer, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was a familiar sight on Capitol Hill, lobbying fiercely for an expansion of the H-1B, currently capped at 65,000 annually. Before Zuckerberg assumed the role of Silicon Valley’s chief spokesman for an H-1B expanded visa program, Microsoft’s Bill Gates was the go-to guy.
When billionaire donors like Zuckerberg and Gates talk, Congress pays attention.
Predictably, one of the first bills introduced by the newly elected Republican-controlled Congress was Utah Sen. Orin Hatch’s legislation that would increase the H-1B cap to 195,000 a year. Hatch, the chairman of the Senate’s High-Tech Task Force, echoed the IT industry’s familiar refrain that the U.S. faces a critical skills shortage.
The cruel irony is that the fantasy of a U.S. worker scarcity persists even though abundant evidence exists that the claim is patently false. In SCE’s case, American workers were already on the job when they got their pink slips.
During the past two years, layoffs in high tech have been staggering. The latest cuts came at eBay, PayPal, Cisco and IBM. In 2014, even though the tech sector was one of the economy’s strongest, layoffs in the industry reached 100,757, the highest total since 2009, and represented more than a fifth of all job cuts last year. Gates’ Microsoft accounted for 14,000 of last year’s firings.
Congress listens to only one side of the story, the one told by employers. Tales from fired workers never generate much sympathy.
Remember in 2012 when President Obama appeared on a Google+ Hangout chatroom session? Pressed by Jennifer Weddel on why H-1B visa holders are still getting jobs, but her unemployed engineer husband with a decade’s experience has been out of work for three years, Obama requested that his resume be forwarded to the White House. Obama promised to share it with companies who tell him that there’s “a shortage of specialized engineers.”
For corporations like SCE, H-1B visa holders are more desirable employees than Americans because they can be hired for less money. The non-partisan Economic Policy Institute found that more than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders are hired at wages lower than those paid to America-born workers. Older, more experienced employees like the SCE workers and Waddel’s husband are the most vulnerable.
Hiring H-1Bs is legal, but the visas’ conditions should be strengthened to put Americans on equal footing. First, the Department of Labor should require employers to conclusively prove that they’ve tried to hire Americans. And second, DOL should establish beyond reasonable doubt that the salaries offered to overseas workers are competitive.
If those two provisions were enforced, U.S. jobs might be better protected.
So far, the DOL has not announced an investigation into the SCE’s H-1B visa abuse, an indication that it is indifferent to American workers’ fates.
Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He’s a Californians for Population Stabilization senior writing fellow. Contact him at [email protected].