Sen. Blumenthal demands lifting of IT 'gag' order

DOJ is asked to probe utility’s replacement of U.S. workers

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U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the layoff and replacement of IT workers at a state energy utility.

Approximately 200 IT workers at Northeast Utilities (now called Eversource Energy) lost their jobs in 2014. It happened after the firm brought in two India-based IT services firms. Some of the IT workers reported training foreign replacements. The IT firms, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, are major users of H-1B visa workers.

This incident might have faded away by now, but new details gave rise to Blumenthal's letter.

Although it has been long known that the utility's severance included a non-disparagement clause, the specific wording has never been public until Computerworld published it last week. This clause bars discussion "that would tend to disparage or discredit" the utility [emphasis added].

Computerworld also published a photograph of a row of American flags in the IT department. The flags were a means of protesting the replacement of U.S. workers, something that visualized employees' emotional response to this action.

In letters released Friday, Blumenthal says he is "outraged" by the replacement of U.S. IT workers. He also called it "shocking."

In a letter to Thomas May, the CEO of Eversource, Blumenthal called the non-disparagement provision "an effective gag order" keeping workers from "speaking openly about their experiences, and further smacks of intimidation and maltreatment of your workforce."

Blumenthal said he "demands" that Eversource clarify that the non-disparagement clause "does not prevent them [former employees] from stating honestly what happened to them -- and that you will not threaten any of them with litigation if they choose to discuss their experiences with me, my staff, or with other government officials."

In the letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Blumenthal is asking the Department of Justice to review whether the utility has violated the law.

Blumenthal wrote: "The statute and regulations governing certain nonimmigrant worker visa programs, like the H-1B program, require employers utilizing the visas in many cases to attest that they offered the job to qualified American applicants and sought to avoid the displacement of American workers. In light of the fact that at least some of the workers laid off by Eversource were coerced into training their replacements, it seems highly possible that the company's behavior in this matter violated its legal obligations."

The U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Justice were asked last spring by 10 senators, including Blumenthal, to investigate Tata and Infosys following similar layoffs at Southern California Edison. But that effort went nowhere.

The Department of Labor said last week, in a statement to Computerworld, that the investigations into Tata and Infosys are concluded. The investigations may have been completed early last fall.

"Infosys and Tata are H-1B dependent employers; however, they were found to have only hired H-1B exempt workers," a Labor spokesman said in an email. "Therefore, the displacement and recruitment provisions do not apply to any of the H-1B applications examined and no violations were found."

Companies that are heavy users (dependent firms) of H-1B visa workers can get around requirements that they have not displaced a U.S. worker if the visa worker is paid at least $60,000 in annual wages, or has a master's or higher degree.

The $60,000 wage is no barrier at all. That threshold is well short of a minimum IT wage in Connecticut, and the East and West Coast generally. For instance, the lowest prevailing wage for an entry-level systems analyst in central Connecticut is $68,000.

It's unknown whether Blumenthal's letter will prod the Department of Justice to do anything. The department has the ability to look at whether discrimination issues were involved in IT worker displacements. The DOJ will not comment, as a matter of policy, about whether it is investigating something or not.

Blumenthal's letter to Eversource's May included a long list of information demands, including "a description of the skillset that nonimmigrant workers brought to Northeast Utilities from 2010-2014 that Northeast Utilities was unable to obtain by hiring U.S. workers."

One Eversource IT worker who was laid off wrote the following email in response to Blumenthal's action. The person's name is not used because of the non-disparagement agreement.

"In light of Sen. Blumenthal's recent letter to Tom May, former and current Eversource employees are relieved that Tom May is finally under scrutiny, but sadly, feel a sense of discouragement. Eversource has a very large in-house legal team and an active Political Action Committee in Washington. 'We'll be lucky if he gets his hands slapped,' one person said. 'Where was everyone two years ago when this was happening? It's too late now.' "

The former worker went on to write: "It's sad to see them feel so browbeaten. Most of them feel the system is rigged in favor of the billion-dollar company whose pockets are far reaching."

"This time, Eversource employees hope lawmakers are sincerely concerned with halting this type of abuse and are willing to come forward if they can without fear of litigation by Eversource," the employee wrote.

The former employees say what happened to them represents indifference and greed.

May received a $1.3 million pay raise in 2014, a 17% increase, the Boston Globe reported last year.

An Eversource spokesman said the firm would not make any comments beyond the one it made last week. At that time, the company said, "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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