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Laid-off IT workers muzzled as H-1B debate heats up

Patrick Thibodeau | Jan. 29, 2016
In the office and in Congress, IT workers are fighting back -- often in silence.

flags in protest
Flags went up in silent protest at the former Northeast Utilities, now Eversource Energy. They were taken down once H-1B workers came on-site and occupied the cubicles.

IT workers are challenging the replacement of U.S. employees with foreign visa holders. Lawsuits are on the rise and workers are contacting lawmakers. Disney workers who lost their jobs on Jan. 30, 2015, are especially aggressive.

There's a reason for this. 

The Disney severance package offered to them did not include a non-disparagement clause, making it easier for laid-off workers to speak out. This is in contrast to the severance offered to Northeast Utility workers.

The utility, now known as Eversource Energy and based in Connecticut and Massachusetts, laid off approximately 200 IT employees in 2014 after contracting with two India-based offshore outsourcing firms. The employees contacted local media and lawmakers to pressure the utility to abandon its outsourcing plan.

Some of the utility's IT employees had to train their foreign replacements. Failure to do so meant loss of severance. But an idea emerged to show workers' disdain for what was happening: Small American flags were placed in cubicles and along the hallway in silent protest -- flags that disappeared as the workers were terminated.

The utility employees left their jobs with a severance package that included this sentence: "Employee agrees that he/she shall make no statements to anyone, spoken or written, that would tend to disparage or discredit the Company or any of the Company's officers, directors, employees, or agents."

That clause has kept former Eversource employees from speaking out because of fears the utility will sue them if they say anything about their experience. The IT firms that Eversource uses, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, are major users of the H-1B visa.

But staying silent is difficult, especially after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) co-sponsored legislation in January 2015 that would hike the 65,000 H-1B base cap hike to as high as 195,000. The measure, known as the I-Squared Act, left some of the former utility IT employees incredulous. They were far from alone.

The 200,000-member engineering association, IEEE-USA, said the I-Squared bill would "help destroy" the IT workforce with a flood of lower paid foreign workers.

Eventually, Blumenthal's staff did learn, confidentially, about the experiences of former Eversource IT workers. 

In November, Blumenthal co-sponsored new H-1B legislation by longtime program critics, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), designed to prevent the replacement of U.S. workers by H-1B visa holders.

Nonetheless, Blumenthal remains a co-sponsor of the I-Squared Act, which raised questions among those laid off about his intentions.

"He is still co-sponsoring everything," one former Connecticut utility worker said about Blumenthal. The worker asked not to be identified because of severance package limitations. "He is totally unbelievable." Blumenthal was not immediately available for comment.

 

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