Many people with H-1B visas have been living in the US for years (Representational)
Mass tech layoffs have left hundreds of workers living in the US on temporary visas with little time to find another job, or they'll have to leave the country. And many say they're getting inadequate guidance from the companies that sponsored them.
The tech industry has long relied on the H-1B visa program to meet its 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 remain in the US legally for only 60 days without finding new employers to sponsor them.
Many people with H-1B visas have been living in the US for years, awaiting permanent citizenship. Now they're frantically searching for jobs, along with thousands of other tech workers in a newly competitive labor market. Some have mortgages, student loans and children in school.
At the same time, many major employers have frozen hiring, and recruiting is typically slower during the holidays. With deadlines looming, desperate job hunters have turned to their professional networks to find a way to stay. Some have made direct appeals on LinkedIn, generating threads with hundreds of responses, including many citing job openings in the US and overseas. Crowdsourced spreadsheets and referrals abound on social networks.
More than a dozen recently cut workers spoke with Bloomberg; they requested anonymity to avoid angering their former employers or jeopardizing their job hunt. One former Twitter designer, a 30-year-old who has been in the US for 14 years and was let go in November along with 3,500 colleagues, says she had long imagined this scenario, living in dread of having to pack up everything and leave the country on the fly. "There's always this thing going back and forth in our minds," she says: "Will I need to move?"
The H-1B program allows US employers to recruit foreign workers with college degrees in technical fields where there's historically been a shortage of Americans. Visas are issued for three years, with possible extensions. The number of people allowed in each year is capped at 85,000, and demand is high, particularly 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 at top tech companies make much more. The median salary for an H-1B worker at Meta, Salesforce and Twitter was about $175,000, not including hefty bonuses and stock options.
The layoffs have had an especially big impact on Indians, who tend to be on temporary visas longer than other foreign groups because of backlogs in getting permanent residency (a green card). Each country is typically allowed a maximum of 7 per cent of the employment-based green cards issued each year, so while there are almost half a million Indian nationals in the queue, only about 10,000 green cards a year are available for them. A congressional reportestimated that Indians filing in 2020 would have to wait as long as 195 years for a green card. Chinese workers faced an 18-year wait; for people from the rest of the world, it's less than a year.
At the start of the year, one H-1B holder from India had just bought a house in Seattle to start a job with Meta. Eleven months later, he's searching 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's hoping to find a job as a technical product or program manager. He's been scouring his networks on LinkedIn, joining dedicated WhatsApp groups and submitting application after application. "You have to spend months preparing for some of these jobs," he says by phone, over the sound of his young children singing in the background. "It's hard to tell yourself that even after 15 years being properly documented you still might not have a way to stay. The path to residency is broken."
Companies, which must pay for H-1B workers to return to their home country if they have to leave the US after losing their job, have offered varying levels of support for immigrants. Five former Twitter employees on temporary visas say the company has provided little assistance and wasn't clear when their 60-day grace period starts. When one worker asked for clarification, a company representative recommended finding their own attorney, because the law could be interpreted in different ways. Twitter didn't 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 laid off by TripAdvisor early in the pandemic. After taking two days to process his layoff, he interviewed with 25 different employers and found a job with just two weeks left on his visa. "It's natural to feel sad and angry," he says.
A USCIS spokesperson says the agency is exploring policy options to address challenges faced by immigrant communities and is committed to increasing access to immigration benefits.
Vidhi Agrawal, a visa holder from India who wasn't affected by layoffs, has been working with a friend to build a database of H-1B workers in need of jobs. After two weeks, it listed more than 350 people. She and her friend have been reaching 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 be on 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 appeal posts from people on visas who've suddenly lost their jobs. She woke up on Monday last week to 47 messages rather than the usual 10, and she has already interviewed four people on H-1B visas who've been laid off by Twitter and one from Meta.
Meta Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who announced 11,000 job cuts this month, told employees that visa holders would be given "notice periods"-which can buy them more time before their visa clock starts ticking-and assistance from "dedicated immigration specialists." But one former Meta employee says the consultation wasn't helpful. The attorney 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 consultations and help with changing visa status wherever possible. Lyft said it was willing to keep workers on its payroll without working for a few extra weeks to extend their clocks. Amazon is giving workers 60 days to find a different job internally before taking them off the books, which extends their visa clock, according to three ex-employees. Salesforce declined to comment on whether it was offering immigration assistance for those it was laying off.
"There is serious pressure to find jobs," says Fiona McEntee, an immigration attorney with McEntee Law Group in Chicago. "The issue is the ticking clock."
Some have already given up hope. A 34-year-old product manager laid off by a large fintech company says he's halfheartedly trying to find a job in the next few weeks but has largely made up his mind to move back to India. A University of Chicago graduate, he's been living in the US for seven years. Going back to his hometown of Bengaluru may be a "blessing in disguise," he says-he'll be able to spend more time with his aging parents and start his own company, which is hard to do while you're on a visa. "I am burned out," he says about the green card backlog. "I don't see a light at the end of this tunnel."
-With Alex Barinka, Jackie Davalos and Matt Day