Meta's H-1B layoffs challenge visa holders and U.S. workers

Mark Zuckerberg has taken a prominent role in arguing for increases in H-1B visas. Meta's recent layoffs include visa holders, something that may cost tech clout in Washington.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a leader in seeking expansion of H-1B visas and work-related immigration. The company's decision to lay off 13% of its workforce this week illustrates a downside that comes with this advocacy.

Facebook parent Meta is a major employer of H-1B workers. It is listed as H-1B dependent by the U.S. government, meaning 15% or more of its U.S. workforce are visa workers. The company hasn't disclosed how many of its 11,000 laid off are visa holders, but its job separation benefits include immigration support.

"I know this is especially difficult if you're here on a visa," Zuckerberg wrote to Meta employees Wednesday.

The layoffs at Meta, Twitter and other Silicon Valley companies that use H-1B workers highlight some of the visa's complications. Laid-off H-1B workers have 60 days to find another employer or face leaving the country, losing their chance for permanent residency or a green card.

H-1B workers affected by layoffs "are desperate to find another employer immediately," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University. He has testified before Congress on the visa program.

"Such desperation means having virtually no bargaining power with prospective employers. And [they] will make huge sacrifices just to stay in the country legally, including [accepting] lower wages and substandard working conditions," Hira said.

But use of H-1B workers also reduces job opportunities for U.S. tech workers puts downward pressure on wages, Hira argued. H-1B workers willing to take any available job "are directly competing with U.S. workers."

Meta did not disclose how many of the 11,000 laid-off workers are visa holders. But Zuckerberg has argued at length about the benefits of work visa programs through lobbying group FWD.us, which Zuckerberg co-founded in 2013. According to OpenSecrets, it spent $1.13 million in lobbying in 2022.

Last year, Facebook agreed to pay more than $14 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit alleging that it "refused to consider" U.S. workers for jobs it earmarked for H-1B holders who were seeking green cards. Employers are required to determine whether any U.S. worker is available for the position.

Tech industry vs. critics

For decades, the tech industry has been seeking expansion of temporary work visas and employment-based green cards, or permanent residency. Critics of the H-1B program argue that these workers can make less than U.S. workers, and the immigration risk that visa holders have in a layoff gives employers enormous leverage.

[Laid-off H-1B workers have] virtually no bargaining power with prospective employers. And [they] will make huge sacrifices just to stay in the country legally.
Ron HiraAssociate professor of political science, Howard University

Employers may try to help laid-off H-1B workers by extending out when the layoff takes effect to give the employee more time. That approach is "a little bit risky" because the government's immigration authority, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), could say no, said Jim Hacking, an immigration attorney and founder of Hacking Immigration Law in St. Louis.

Hacking said H-1B visa holders could file for a change of status and seek a business visa, such as a B-1. The temporary business visa grants permission for workers to stay in the U.S. while that visa is pending. But they will be unable to work until the visa is granted.

Hacking also believes job prospects of laid-off visa holders might be good. This year, the U.S. received nearly 500,000 H-1B applications for 85,000 visas, "so there's a huge demand for H-1B visa workers," he said.

Visa workers must be paid a prevailing wage, which has four tiers. But the prevailing wages allow salaries below the median wage for an occupation. A 2020 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank in Washington, D.C., found that 60% of H-1B positions certified by the U.S. Dept. of Labor pay wage levels below the local median. Hira and Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at EPI, conducted the research.

Sixty days is a short window for laid-off visa workers to find a job. But H-1B workers can begin a new job as soon as a new employer files a visa petition with immigration authorities, Costa said.

"When USCIS reviews that petition -- at least in theory -- they should be checking to make sure that the wages and working conditions on an offer match up with the H-1B laws and regulations," Costa said.

Hira believes the layoffs "should weaken tech's clout" on the work visa issue. "But more importantly, it should force policymakers and analysts to look at how guest worker programs distort the labor market during inevitable downturns in the tech sector," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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