EIG in the News: Tech Layoffs Hit H1B Visa Workers Hard

When she lost her job at Google last month, Jingjing Tan started worrying about her dog, an energetic, 75-pound German shepherd.

As a foreign worker living in the U.S. on a temporary work visa, if she couldn’t find a job within 60 days, she feared she might have to return to her home country, China. In big Chinese cities, where tech jobs are, keeping large dogs as pets often isn’t allowed.

She also fretted she might have to sell or rent out her house, which she bought in the Bay Area last year. Ms. Tan’s husband—who is also in the U.S. on an H1B visa and works in tech—remains employed. But they are concerned about his job as well.

“We’re anxious every day,” says Ms. Tan, who has lived in the U.S. since 2018.

Layoffs have rippled across the tech industry, with more than 257,000 job cuts since last year.

Given the pullback in tech, laid-off foreign workers seeking new jobs are in especially bad straits, says Leena Sujan, who runs a tech-focused recruiting firm. Many tech companies she works with are telling her they are reluctant to move ahead with hires, whether candidates have H1B visas or not.

“We’re at a screeching halt right now,” she says.

The number of tech jobs in the U.S. declined by 32,000 last month, according to IT industry trade group CompTIA. There were 269,000 tech job postings in January, CompTIA says, down from a record high of 394,000 job postings last March.

While there is no reliable way to track how many workers on temporary visas have been laid off, those in the industry estimate that tens of thousands have been affected. Foreign-born workers, including green-card holders, naturalized citizens and those on temporary work visas, account for nearly one-quarter of all workers in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math, according to a 2019 estimate from the American Immigration Council, up from 16% in 2000.

If H1B workers can’t find new employment within a few weeks, or apply to transfer to another visa, they must leave the U.S. In other cases, immigration lawyers who specialize in employment law say, those laid off while traveling outside the U.S. now find themselves stuck outside of the country, with their work visa no longer valid for re-entry.

They range from those who have been in the U.S. for decades to recent graduates like Sushant Arora, who received his master’s degree in project management in the U.S. in 2021 and until last month was employed as an analyst at a data-analytics company in Boston.

Mr. Arora, an Indian national who was laid off last month, says a 60-day timetable to find a new job isn’t nearly enough, given the amount of time it often takes to hear back from prospective employers and advance through technical tests and interview rounds.

“It’s like a nightmare,” he says. Since being laid off, Mr. Arora estimates he has applied for between 500 and 600 jobs and had three interviews. Given the current job market, he says he would be happy for any opportunity that comes his way: “I can’t be picky.

In some cases, laid-off tech workers find themselves in an uneasy limbo, as in the case of Neuman Vong, who until December worked for Twitter on a temporary work visa available to Australian nationals. Mr. Vong was on vacation in Malaysia when he learned he was laid off.

To avoid complications, he has been staying in his home country of Australia. His neighbor in Los Angeles has been taking his car for occasional drives so the battery won’t die. Another friend is watering his plants. His apartment sits empty.

As a worker on a temporary visa, he says he has felt a constant pressure to hustle and prove his worth.

“I’ve been fighting so hard to stay in the U.S. for the last decade,” says Mr. Vong, who has lived in California for most of that time: “California is my home; all my friends are there.”

The 60-day grace period that foreign workers have to remain in the U.S. and try to secure new jobs doesn’t apply to those who are laid off while abroad, says Hiba Mona Anver, a partner at Erickson Immigration Group, a law firm based in Arlington, Va. If a worker on a temporary work visa has their role terminated while they are traveling out of the country, she says, that visa is no longer valid for re-entry unless the worker manages to secure another job while abroad. 

Some companies have been extending foreign employees’ termination dates to try to give them more of a cushion to find a new role, says Sophie Alcorn, founder of the Silicon Valley-based Alcorn Immigration Law, which advises tech companies that hire foreign workers. But in most cases, companies have scant obligations to such workers. In the case of H1B visas, she says, the most common temporary work visa held by tech workers, the only legal requirement companies have is to notify federal authorities of a worker’s termination and pay for their airfare home.

Companies aren’t allowed to consider national origin when determining whom to terminate, Ms. Alcorn says. “It’s at-will employment,” she says. “Anyone can quit, and anyone can be fired.”