Mass layoffs in the technology sector have left hundreds of workers living in the US on temporary visas short of time to find another job or have to leave the country. And many say they don’t get enough guidance from the companies that sponsored them.
The tech industry has long relied on the H-1B visa program to meet the need for workers in specialized fields such as computer science and engineering. Amazon, Lyft, Meta, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter have sponsored at least 45,000 H-1B workers in the past three years, according to a Bloomberg analysis of data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Reports compiled by employees at Meta and Twitter indicate that the latest round of job cuts at those two companies alone has affected at least 350 immigrants. H-1B holders who become unemployed can only legally stay in the US for 60 days without finding new employers to sponsor them.
Many people on H-1B visas have lived in the US for years, awaiting permanent citizenship. Now they are frantically looking for jobs along with thousands of other tech workers in a new competitive job market. Some have mortgages, student loans, and kids in school.
At the same time, many large employers have stopped hiring and hiring tends to slow down during the holiday season. With deadlines approaching, desperate job seekers have turned to their professional networks to find a way to stay. Some made a direct call on LinkedIn, sparking discussions with hundreds of responses, including many job openings in the US and abroad. Crowdsourced spreadsheets and references galore on social networks.
More than a dozen recently laid off employees spoke to Bloomberg; they requested anonymity to avoid angering their former employers or jeopardizing their job search. A former Twitter designer, a 30-year-old who has been in the US for 14 years and was laid off in November along with 3,500 colleagues, says she had imagined this scenario for a long time, afraid to pack everything up and leave the country on the run. “There’s always something going back and forth in our minds,” she says, “Should I move?”
The H-1B program allows U.S. employers to hire 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 admitted each year is limited to 85,000 and the demand is high, especially among Indian professionals. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for an H-1B worker was $106,000 in the third quarter. But employees at top technology companies earn much more. The median salary for an H-1B employee at Meta, Salesforce and Twitter was about $175,000, not including hefty bonuses and stock options.
The layoffs have had a particularly strong impact on Indians, who typically have longer temporary visas than other foreign groups due to delays in obtaining permanent residency (a green card). Each country is typically allowed a maximum of 7 percent of the employment-based green cards issued each year, so while there are nearly half a million Indian nationals lined up, only about 10,000 green cards are available to them each year. A congressional report estimated that Indians applying in 2020 would have to wait as much as 195 years for a green card. Chinese workers had to wait 18 years; for people from the rest of the world it is less than a year.
At the beginning of the year, an H-1B holder from India had just bought a house in Seattle to start working 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 US for 15 years, says he hopes to find a job as a technical product or program manager. He searches his networks on LinkedIn, joins special WhatsApp groups and submits application after application. “Some of these jobs take months to prepare,” he says on the phone, over the sound of his young children singing in the background. “It’s hard to tell yourself that even after 15 years of being well-documented, you still might not have a way to stay. The road to residency is broken.”
Companies, which must pay H-1B workers to return to their home countries if they have to leave the US after losing their job, have supported immigrants on several levels. Five former Twitter employees on temporary visas say the company has offered little help and it was not clear when their 60-day grace period will begin. When an employee asked for clarification, a company representative recommended that you find your own lawyer, as the law can be interpreted in different ways. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Aditya Tawde, an engineer from India who works at LinkedIn, calls immigration support from US companies the “bare minimum.” He was fired by TripAdvisor early in the pandemic. After taking two days to process his resignation, he interviewed 25 different employers and found a job with only two weeks left on his visa. “It’s normal to be sad and angry,” he says.
A USCIS spokesperson says the agency is exploring policy options to address the challenges faced by immigrant communities and is committed to increasing access to immigration benefits.
Vidhi Agrawal, an Indian visa holder who was not hit by layoffs, has been working with a friend to build a database of H-1B workers in need of employment. After two weeks, more than 350 people were on the list. She and her friend have reached out to recruiters on their behalf to help. Agrawal, who works at DataBricks and moved to the Bay Area from India 11 years ago, is part of the green card backlog. “It’s scary to have a visa and lose a job, especially when you have kids and have to uproot and leave,” she says.
Cecy Cervantes, a recruiter at a 15-person tech startup in New York, says LinkedIn has gone “crazy” with job postings from visa holders who suddenly lost their jobs. She woke up last Monday to 47 messages 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 Officer Mark Zuckerberg, announcing 11,000 layoffs this month, told employees that visa holders would get “notice periods” — buying them more time before their visa clock starts ticking — and help from “dedicated immigration specialists.” But a former Meta employee says the consultation was not helpful. The lawyer had given Twitter similar advice: “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 advice and help with visa status changes where possible. Lyft said it was willing to keep employees on payroll without working a few extra weeks to extend their clocks. Amazon gives employees 60 days to look for another job internally before they are taken off the books, extending their visa clock, three ex-employees said. Salesforce declined to comment on whether it provided immigration assistance to those it fired.
“There’s some serious pressure to get a job,” said Fiona McEntee, an immigration lawyer with McEntee Law Group in Chicago. “The problem is the ticking clock.”
Some have already given up hope. A 34-year-old product manager laid off by a major fintech company says he has been half-heartedly trying to find a job for the next few weeks, but has largely decided to move back to India. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has been living in the US for seven years. Going back to his hometown of Bengaluru might be a “blessing in disguise,” he says — he’ll be able to spend more time with his elderly parents and start his own business, which is hard to do while on a visa. . “I’m burnt out,” he says of the green card backlog. “I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel.”
-With Alex Barinka, Jackie Davalos and Matt Day
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