H-1B pay and its impact on U.S. workers is aired by Congress

As Congress debates the H-1B visa, an unemployed IT worker sits in the audience to get a feel for its impact on U.S. workers

Brendan Kavanagh, an unemployed IT consultant with expertise in J.D. Edwards ERP systems, used his frequent flier miles and hotel points to travel from his Miami home to Capitol Hill to attend today's U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on the H-1B visa.

Kavanagh, in an audience consisting of mostly industry lobbyists and policy experts, was on hand for the full two-hour hearing.

One key issue of interest to Kavanagh, since he no longer earns a salary, was the rules on prevailing wages for H-1B workers .

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat whose Congressional district includes Silicon Valley, framed the wage issue at the hearing, sharing the response to her request for some wage numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Lofgren said that the average wage for computer systems analysts in her district is $92,000, but the U.S. government prevailing wage rate for H-1B workers in the same job currently stands at $52,000, or $40,000 less.

"Small wonder there's a problem here," said Lofgren. "We can't have people coming in an undercutting the American educated workforce."

Kavanagh said he had a job working on a J.D. Edwards system, when he was asked to train workers from an offshore company. He was told at the time that he was being moved to a different project, but instead was laid off once the training was complete.

Kavanagh, who said he can't name the client because of confidentiality agreements, doubts he can find a similar ERP job now because of the prevalence of offshore workers doing similar work.

"There is almost nothing out there -- the Indian body shops have cleaned up," said Kavanagh after the hearing. "Even the ones that don't use the body shops expect to pay the same as when they had one of these body shops."

The hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, wasn't held in response to any particular legislative proposal, but was intended to provide an overview of some of the issues that have emerged in H-1B debate since this committee's last hearing on the subject about five years ago.

Among those testifying was Bo Cooper, an immigration attorney who is also affiliated with Compete America, an organization that has advocated for H-1B cap increases. Cooper said he disputes the notion that H-1B workers are a source of cheap labor.

"When the economy is strong, demand (for H-1B visas) is high, when the economy drops, it plunges," said Cooper. "If the H-1B were a source of cheap labor, the exact opposite would happen."

But Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author, argued that the H-1B program "does more harm than good."

Hira said the program makes it too easy for companies to bring in lower paid foreign workers with ordinary skills to "directly substitute rather [than] complement" American workers. Such moves provide a competitive advantage to offshore outsourcing firms.

Hira cited a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found more than half of H-1B workers were paid entry level wages. One large offshore firm hired 100 visa holding computer programmers at $12.25 an hour, said Hira, citing government data. "That's hardly the best and the brightest," he said.

Lofgren has been working on legislation that would shift emphasis to Green Cards, or permanent residency leading to citizenship, from the H-1B visa.

She said that a Green Card is a better way to ensure that top foreign students who graduate from foreign U.S. schools remain here. President Barack Obama has indicated that he supports a similar plan.

Afterward, Kavanagh was dismissive of Lofgren's push to expand Green Card access, especially when there is what he called "gross underemployment" of U.S. college graduates.

Kavanagh came to the U.S. from the United Kingdom on an L-1 visa some 16 years ago. He was transferred by his employer, a pharmaceutical company, to work on its technology in the U.S.

He met his wife here and became a citizen about nine years ago, he said. "I pledged my future to this country," said Kavanagh. "I'm not a dual citizen, I'm an American citizen."

Kavanagh is also becoming an activist. He is now helping Bright Future Jobs, a group that has opposed the H-1B visa. He says he is educating himself about the issue, which is why he flew to Washington.

"It was absolutely worth it," said Kavanagh of the trip. "I actually got an understanding of how this works."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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