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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.

Leo Perrero, an IT worker at Disney who was laid off after training his foreign replacement, says non-disparagement agreements hinder the debate over the H-1B visa. Without such agreements, "you would have a lot more people speaking out - real human beings with real stories, not just anonymous persons speaking out," said Perrero.

"Their freedom of speech is being taken away from them with the non-disparagement agreements," he said.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to hear, last year, from IT employees who had been displaced by H-1B workers. It also wanted them to testify. It reached out nationally to affected employees, but had to settle for written testimony that was kept anonymous by the committee. The workers were too afraid to speak publicly.

In December, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is also the chairman of the Immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), introduced an H-1B reform bill that includes a prohibition against non-disparagement clauses.

The bill "would prevent employers who seek access to the (H-1B) program from requiring American employees to sign so-called non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements." The agreements can prevent "American employees from discussing potential misuse of the program publicly."

Non-disparagement clauses are common in severance agreements. But the Disney severance did not have one, and had no prohibition against any claims or lawsuits, said Sara Blackwell, an attorney representing former Disney IT workers. It is unclear why the company went this route.

Fear of jeopardizing new employment also keeps many displaced IT workers quiet. But lawsuits alleging discrimination and racketeering are being filed on behalf of displaced IT workers.

Brian Buchanan, a former Southern California Edison IT worker, is another who trained his foreign replacements. He is now part of a lawsuit alleging discrimination by Tata Consultancy Services, one of the IT services firms used by Edison.  He is also included in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. government's decision to allow spouses of some H-1B workers to seek employment. That lawsuit argues that the added workers will hurt the job market for U.S. workers.  

Buchanan, who has contacted lawmakers about the impact of the H-1B programs, sees "little progress" in the past year. "Americans are going to have to act and they are going to have to act in mass, because we are fighting a huge, unseen force," said Buchanan.

Eversource was asked about the non-disparagement agreement, and had this response: "These are private arrangements between affected employees and our company that were made more than two years ago during a period of transition and change in support of our merger. We have successfully moved on to form a new organization focused on providing superior service and value to our customers."


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