So Cal Edison's IT layoffs are abuse of H-1B program, says U.S. lawmaker

Complaints of IT layoffs at utility continue to stir reaction

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Southern California Edison's decision to replace IT workers with H-1B visas workers employed by contractors is drawing more criticism from U.S. lawmakers, the latest from U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

Chu, whose district includes SCE's headquarters, said it is "a tragedy for the San Gabriel Valley that 500 loyal workers at SCE are losing their jobs.

"It is of great concern to me that these workers are being replaced by H-1B visa holders, a program which is actually meant to fill a void for specialized workers but only when there is no qualified American worker for that job," said Chu in a statement.

Chu is the third U.S. lawmaker to raise concerns about SCE's action. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), called the layoffs "deeply disturbing," and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said the displacements represent "a growing problem in the high-tech industry."

While the lawmakers have raised concerns, it's unclear whether they can do anything to help SCE's IT workers.

Edison said it is cutting about 500 IT jobs, about 100 through voluntary departures, but employees who have contacted Computerworld say the number of IT cuts, particularly over the past two years, is much higher.

"Replacing American workers with temporary foreign workers for the purpose of driving wages down most definitely must not be the program's intent," said Chu. "The H-1B visa program can fulfill an important need, but I believe strongly that it should not be abused in this manner. We must reform the program and stop these abuses."

By law, the H-1B visa is not supposed to have an adverse impact on U.S. workers. In practice, what often happens is that U.S. workers, as is the case at Edison, must train their visa-holding replacements if they want a severance package.

Edison said it is in full compliance with immigration law, "and is not hiring H-1B visa workers to replace displaced employees."

Edison is bringing in contractors, in this case, two India-based IT services companies, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys, which mostly hire H-1B workers who then replace U.S. workers. The outcome for the IT workers is no different than if Edison had replaced them directly: They are being replaced by H-1B visa workers. Why the U.S. Department of Labor isn't investigating this practice is getting new questions.

In an open letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez this week, Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, wrote, "Clearly, taking away the jobs, wages and benefits of the laid-off SCE employees does adversely affect their wages and working conditions." The Economic Policy Institute is a think tank whose founders include former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who served during the Clinton administration.

Eisenbrey said Perez has the legal authority to investigate H-1B use at SCE, "but I have seen no announcement that you intend to do so or that you share my sense of outrage that the H-1B program is being abused in such an egregious way."

Meanwhile, the next batch of IT layoffs at SCE, and possibly the final major one, is scheduled for March 6.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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