Senator questions, prods Microsoft on inclusion of H-1B workers in layoffs

Grassley says it's 'imperative' that U.S. workers get job priority over visa holders in cutbacks

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told Microsoft Corp. this week that U.S. citizens should get priority over H-1B visa holders as the software vendor moves forward on its plan to cut 5,000 jobs.

"These work visa programs were never intended to allow a company to retain foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American workers, when that company cuts jobs during an economic downturn," Grassley wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The letter asked Microsoft to detail the types of jobs that will be eliminated and how those cuts will affect the company's H-1B workers.

"It is imperative that in implementing its layoff plan, Microsoft ensures that American workers have priority in keeping their jobs over foreign workers on visa programs," Grassley added.

In some respects, it was a letter that Grassley, a vocal critic of the H-1B program, could have sent to any number of IT vendors that have announced layoffs recently. But Microsoft has been an outspoken proponent of increasing the annual cap on H-1B visas — primarily through its chairman, Bill Gates, who has spoken in support of raising the cap in speeches and in testimony before congressional committees, most recently last March. Grassley's letter noted as much.

Gates, in his appearance last year before the House Committee on Science and Technology, said that the current cap of 65,000 H-1B visas, plus an additional 20,000 set aside for foreign workers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, "is arbitrarily set and bears no relationship to the U.S. economy's demand for skilled professionals."

It's uncertain what, if anything, the new Congress will do about the H-1B cap. The next filing period for H-1B applications begins April 1, and demand is again expected to exceed the cap limit even though the economy is in recession and unemployment is on the rise.

During the election campaign, President Barack Obama voiced support for the H-1B program, although that was well before the current economic crisis took hold. Obama has yet to announce any detailed H-1B plans, but his Cabinet nominees include supporters of a cap increase, such as Janet Napolitano, now secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Google Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, who was part of Obama's transition team, has been critical of the current cap.

Microsoft didn't respond this afternoon to a request for comment about the letter sent by Grassley, who last fall released an internal report by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency documenting large amounts of fraud in the H-1B program.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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