Rep. Issa calls So. Calif. Edison tech layoffs 'deeply disturbing'

The California congressman wants to know whether the utility is abusing the H-1B visa program

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The layoffs of IT workers at Southern California Edison (SCE) has drawn the attention of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), who called reports that the H-1B visa program is being used to replace part of SCE's workforce "deeply disturbing."

"Based on the information currently available, this appears to be an example of precisely what the H-1B visa is not intended to be: a program to simply replace American workers en masse with cheap labor from overseas," Issa said in a statement released late Friday.

The utility, southern California's largest, is cutting about 500 IT workers, 100 of them through voluntary departures and others through layoffs. IT employees say H-1B visa holders, working for the two outsourcers on the project, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services -- both based in India -- are replacing them.

The layoffs began in August, and another group was due to be laid off on Friday; yet another group is scheduled to be laid off on March 6. The layoffs are expected to be completed by the end of March.

Issa is the second U.S. lawmaker to draw attention to SCE's layoffs. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala), who heads the immigration subcommittee, raised concerns as well on the floor of the Senate.

Issa said that current law "requires that an employer certify that the hiring of an H-1B applicant 'will not adversely affect the working conditions of workers similarly employed,' in keeping with the program's intent of injecting new talent into the economy, rather than merely replacing current workers with lower paid counterparts."

Issa also wrote, "I urge Southern California Edison to be forthcoming in releasing information about the process behind this decision, and I look forward to a thorough and transparent account of what attempts were made to ensure this major hiring decision adheres to the very clear statutes outlining the intended structure of the H-1B visa program."

To prevent replacing U.S. workers, Issa, in his statement, pointed to legislation that he co-sponsored in the last session of Congress, the Skills Visa Act. (HR 2131), which he said "includes stronger prevailing wage protections to ensure that companies aren't simply using the program to replace existing workers with lower cost imported labor."

The Skills Visa Act would also significantly increase the H-1B cap, and has been backed by Compete America, a leading lobbying group on immigration issues for the tech industry.

This legislation would increase employment green cards for skilled labor, and raises the H-1B base cap from its current 65,000 to 155,000. The cap for advanced degree holders from U.S. schools would double, from 20,000 to 40,000.

Among the critics of the Skills Visa Act, is The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which published a briefing paper that looked at the impact of the bill and the Senate's failed comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744). It said that if either bill were adopted "a conservative estimate is that there will be 180,000 new college-educated IT workers under 30 years old entering the labor market every year via guestworker visas or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) green cards."

"If this occurs, each year the number of new IT guestworkers and STEM green card beneficiaries will be greater than the number of new hires of young IT college graduates in 2011," argued the EPI. The report was authored by Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers; Daniel Kuehn, a researcher at the Urban Institute; and Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

The EPI paper also said that "the large supply of young guestworkers not only provides competition to new U.S. graduates, but also provides a large supply of younger, lower-paid workers who can substitute for older workers."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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