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Microsoft: H-1B workers among those losing jobs

No legal obligation to keep U.S. workers over visa holders in layoff, says attorney

January 26, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Microsoft Corp. said it is cutting a "significant number" of foreign workers as part of the layoff of 1,400 employees last week, a number that is due to reach 5,000 over the next 18 months.

The company isn't detailing how many of the workers losing their jobs are in the U.S. on a visa, however.

Microsoft has been urged by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of the H-1B program, to protect the jobs of U.S. workers over foreign workers. In a letter last week to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Grassley demanded that U.S. workers get priority in keeping their jobs.

But there is nothing in the law that requires a company to cut the jobs of H-1B workers before U.S. workers, said experts. David Kussin, an immigration attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, said, "In fact, the law is very well designed to say that you have to treat H-1Bs the same as U.S. citizens in all regards."

Grassley appears to acknowledge that fact in his letter to Ballmer, arguing that the company has a "moral obligation" to protect U.S. workers. He did not write of a legal obligation.

Microsoft will not disclose the number of H-1B workers on its payroll, and it is hard to get a complete picture on any company's visa use from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but Microsoft is considered a leading H-1B employer.

From available department data, in two years alone -- 2006 and 2007 -- it received approval for nearly 2,300 visas. In previous years, Microsoft has hired foreign workers under the H-1B program, which has been used heavily by technology companies since the 1990s.

The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, a labor group in Seattle, said it is trying to determine how many foreign workers are being affected by the layoffs. "I know this is a secret they will try very hard to keep," said Priyanka Joshi, a spokeswoman for WashTech.

Citing an Indian press report that says Microsoft is not laying off employees at its India operations, Joshi said the move to lay off workers in the U.S. and not overseas "is completely unfair." A Microsoft representative could not be reached immediately to confirm those accounts.

Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos said in a statement that the jobs cuts were "based on a detailed assessment of our current and future business opportunities."

"The initial reductions we announced affect employees in a number of business units, and a significant number of the affected employees are foreign citizens working in this country on a visa," Gellos said in the statement.

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