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Tech layoffs put extra strain on H-1B visa holders

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to look at another group of workers affected by this massive layoffs in tech, people who hold H-1B visas. This is a visa for people who work in so-called specialty occupations, including fashion models who have needed business skills and abilities that employers say they can't readily find in the U.S. workforce. But their employment is tied to the company that hired them. So if they're laid off, they need to find another job to sponsor them within 60 days or they're supposed to return home or face deportation. Needless to say, that can be pretty stressful.

Nuwan Samaraweera is a founder of Chicago H-1B Connect. That's an online collective of companies in Chicago who've agreed to help sponsor H-1B visa holders. In the rest of his life, he's the chief operating officer at P33 Chicago. That's an organization that pushes for inclusive tech growth in the city. It was co-founded by the former commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker. And he's with us now. Mr. Samaraweera, thanks so much for joining us.

NUWAN SAMARAWEERA: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: First of all, do you have any numbers for us? Do we know how many H-1B visa holders there are currently working in the U.S.? And I'm wondering if we have any sense of how many people who hold these visas might have been affected or are being affected by these tech layoffs.

SAMARAWEERA: The total number, I'm not sure if that's actually public information, so hard to get precise on that. But I will say that on the layoff side - it's, again, difficult to get precise numbers because the layoffs are fragmented and the firms aren't obligated to release that data - but we think it's at least 10,000 people across the big tech firms that we've seen layoffs that have H-1B visas.

MARTIN: So you have a personal experience working on an H-1B visa, if I understand. I mean, you went to both college and grad school in the U.S. so I assume you were here on a student visa. But at one point, you yourself have had an H-1B visa. Can you just talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

SAMARAWEERA: You know, I would describe it as fear ridden, anxiety inducing, constantly looking over your shoulder for eight to 10 years while I was in that process before I got the green card. You've literally won a lottery ticket because there is an H-1B lottery. But it's very hard to make choices and just kind of enjoy the moment because, you know, it could be taken away at any time. So if you buy a house, if you buy a car, you know, suddenly, you lose your job and you have 60 days to leave the country, that's an incredible stressful moment. And so you are constantly feeling as though you're on the edge of a cliff, trying to do your best, trying to make sure you outperform everyone at work, but knowing that this could end at any moment.

MARTIN: So how did the collective start? Was it in response to these layoffs?

SAMARAWEERA: Yes. So the collective was in response to the layoffs. We saw a few happen. We knew a few more were coming. And business leaders in Chicago, particularly those with connections to the Indian community, began to say, hey, is there something we can do about this? Because we're starting to see a lot of concern amongst certain communities.

MARTIN: So part of the goal here is just to make it more transparent so people won't be wasting their time?

SAMARAWEERA: This is a structural problem in the economy. There's a lot of open roles that can't be filled in America because we don't have enough people with those skills. H-1B visa holders in many cases have those precise skills. And so this was an opportunity for many Chicago companies to also be able to access tech talent that had sometimes been a struggle in the past to recruit.

MARTIN: So on the one hand, people look at this program and think, gosh, it puts people in this vulnerable position. On the other hand, there are Americans who say, why doesn't the U.S. workforce produce people with these skills? I mean, does this present kind of a safety valve for, you know, the American economy to allow it to avoid educating people in a manner that would allow them to fulfill these jobs? Does it make you think about, gee, does this program need some rethinking in some way?

SAMARAWEERA: So I don't think it is a safety valve. I think it's a complementary valve. I think every business leader in the country would say we still need high-skilled labor from overseas to support the roles that we need to fill. And for the long term, the American economy needs to be more thoughtful about how it produces talent and equips them with the skills that business leaders need. And right now, there seems to be a little bit of a mismatch between what's being supplied and what's in demand in the U.S. economy.

MARTIN: But doesn't that mismatch in itself imply that there is a longstanding problem that hasn't been addressed, which is why isn't the American educational system producing people to fulfill these roles that - even in a place like Chicago?

SAMARAWEERA: I think you're exactly right. And so I do think it implies that. And I think that there are many minds across the country who are thinking about this. We work with a lot of equivalent organizations to ours across the country, trying to share knowledge about, how are we trying to reskill and retrain our young workers and also our workers who are in their 20s and 30s and 40s so that they're equipped with skills that position them for in-demand roles in America?

MARTIN: One of the things that seems puzzling right now is that these massive layoffs are taking place just in this particular sector, and yet the unemployment rate remains quite low. Does that suggest that even though people are getting laid off in tech, they're finding other jobs relatively quickly?

SAMARAWEERA: I think what we see is that big tech obviously went through a hiring spree during COVID and likely over hired. But there are many companies in America and certainly in Chicago who have real problems that they need talent to help them work through, challenging business problems that allow them to produce value. And so there is plenty of opportunity out there. A lot of the companies in Chicago, the reason they signed up for this was because they said we've got tons of roles that we're hiring for and we need help to fill them, so this is an opportunity for us.

MARTIN: But looping back to the first part of our conversation, this is a situation where H-1B visa holders, even if they have the skills, might not benefit because these companies might not understand how to hire them, how to sponsor them and things of that sort. Would that be correct?

SAMARAWEERA: Yeah, I think that's fair. I think there's two things they have a challenge with. One is they've only got 60 days to do this. And two, if a company isn't incredibly well versed in how to do this, which I think is one of the big blocks, if you look at the percentage of companies who do sponsor H-1B visa holders, it's not that high, right? If you run into a company that doesn't know how to do this, I mean, there's no way you're going to be able to get through in 60 days because this is a foreign process to many HR functions in most companies in america.

MARTIN: That was Nuwan Samaraweera. He's the chief operating officer at P33 Chicago. That's a that's an organization that's pushing for inclusive tech growth. And he's also a founder of Chicago H-1B Connect, which is trying to help H-1B visa holders to navigate this process. All right, Nuwan Samaraweera, thanks so much for talking to us and sharing this expertise with us.

SAMARAWEERA: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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