Sen. Durbin calls Abbott Labs' IT layoffs 'harsh and insensitive’

Employees are fearful as cuts loom and training of replacements begins

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Abbott Labs, a global healthcare company, is laying off about 180 IT employees after signing an agreement with Wipro, a major India-based IT services firm, to take over some IT services. The employees were told about the planned cuts on Feb. 22; their last day will be April 22.

The workers are expecting to train their replacements, possibly workers on H-1B and other temporary visas.

Abbott is based in Illinois, which is also the home of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who has been a longtime advocate for H-1B reforms and a co-sponsor of legislation with another visa reformer, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

In a letter Monday to Abbott CEO Miles White, Durbin implored him "to reconsider this plan and retain these U.S. workers."

Dubin noted that he has "repeatedly introduced bipartisan legislation to end the exploitation of the H-1B and L-1 visa programs to displace qualified American workers and offshore American jobs."

Last year, for instance, he led a bipartisan group of 10 senators calling on federal agencies to investigate the layoffs at Southern California Edison and at other firms. Some IT workers at the utility complained of having to train replacements who were on H-1B visas.

"While this practice is unlawful, loopholes in existing law make it difficult for the federal government to hold violators accountable," said Durbin. "I will continue to push for legislation to reform the H-1B and L-1 visa programs, but the gaps in current law are no excuse for your company to treat your employees so unfairly. It should go without saying that such harsh and insensitive conduct is not justified by whatever marginal financial benefit might accrue to your company, which is already making billions of dollars in profits every year."

Sara Blackwell, a Florida attorney who is representing some former Disney IT employees in a similar situation, has been in touch with the affected IT workers and Durbin's office as well. "The first goal is to stop the termination," said Blackwell, who is hoping to focus attention on the Abbott layoff.

Blackwell mentioned the layoff at a rally held by GOP presidential contender Donald Trump Sunday in Madison, Alabama. Blackwell, along with two laid-off Disney IT workers, spoke at the rally held by the billionaire businessman.

With enough attention, it's possible "we can save 180 jobs and that's my goal," said Blackwell.

The IT employees at Abbott are distraught, said one IT worker who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Everybody is under tremendous pressure," the worker said, noting that colleagues are are depressed, angry and worried about losing homes and paying medical expenses.

"All the big companies are sending jobs to India -- how are we going to find a job at another company?" said the IT worker. "It's going on everywhere. Nobody is stopping it."

Asked about the layoff plans, Abbott Labs spokesman Scott Stoffel said via email: “Abbott regularly evaluates its competitive position and makes changes that reflect the strategic needs of its business. We recently outsourced some IT capabilities. We’re retaining the vast majority of our U.S.-based IT jobs."

Meanwhile, job ads are being posted inside the company to fill IT jobs, and each ad points out that an H-1B worker may be hired for the position. "It looks like most of the jobs will go to India," the anonymous IT employee said.

Many of the workers are over 40 years old, according to documents seen by Computerworld that describe their positions and ages.

About two years ago, application support was offshored to two other firms, IBM and Cognizant, and IT employees were cut after training replacements, this IT worker said.

The severance being offered includes six weeks of pay, plus a week of pay for each completed year of service.

As the Abbott layoff plans were unfolding last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee received sworn testimony about what was happening; Durbin's staff spoke with Abbott IT workers, who confirmed the cuts.

The severance agreement includes a non-disparagement clause that may make it difficult for employees to talk publicly about what happened. It also requires employees not to sue, including any legal action under the Federal Age Discrimination Employment Act.

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