Just two weeks ago, the Disney ABC Television Group told a team of approximately 30 to 35 application developers that they were being laid off. Their jobs were being moved to an IT contractor with large offshore operations. Some were told their last day would be at the end of July.
But on Thursday, the Disney ABC TV Media Technology & Strategy development team told the developers that their layoffs were being rescinded. The change was confirmed by a Disney ABC source, although a company spokesman would not comment on the reversal or even confirm it.
Kevin Brockman, the Disney ABC spokesman, said that in the course of making a technology upgrade, "we look at a myriad of options to achieve our goals. We're clearly on an alternative path to achieve our goals that we think is better suited to our business."
The employees were notified of their impending layoffs on May 28. Some had already begun working on the "knowledge transfer" process of training employees of IT services contractor Cognizant Technology Solutions, a U.S.-based company with major offshore operations.
The reasons behind Disney's change of heart are unclear. One affected Disney ABC IT employee speculated that the decision is linked to the uproar over the outsourcing at another division, Parks and Resorts, which runs the company's theme parks.
"They [Disney officials], want this to go away -- right now," said the IT employee, who asked to not be named.
The workers are skeptical about Disney's decision to rescind the layoffs. They don't know if the contractor has been called off, or if there has been a change in the future direction of the IT operations. Disney may be simply waiting until the heat dies down, said one worker who didn't want to be named. Disney would not comment on the contractor’s status.
In April, Computerworld reported how IT workers at Disney Parks and Resorts had to train their replacements, some of whom had recently arrived from India, as a condition of receiving their severance packages. That story generated about 1,600 reader comments, most of them critical of the move by Disney.
On June 3, the New York Times published its own story about Disney workers training foreign replacements. That story generated some 2,800 comments and helped propel the subjects of offshore outsourcing and the use of H-1B visas onto a broader national stage.
Last Friday, two days after the Times story was posted, two IT workers at ABC TV said the contract workers were no longer in the office. As of yesterday, they had not yet returned.
A Disney source said there was no connection between recent news stories and the company's IT plans.
The intent of the outsourcing at Disney ABC was to turn over "sustainment," or application development and maintenance work, to the contractors. Employees said that -- as they understood it -- they would shift to more modern and interesting work. But the workers became wary, particularly after learning of the outsourcing at the Parks and Resorts division.
Disney says it had been communicating for months prior to the layoffs that officials were looking at many options and the future direction was not set. The May 28 layoff notices appeared to clear up the uncertainty.
What makes outsourcing an intense issue is its close association with the H-1B visa. The largest users of this temporary visa are IT services providers that are either based in India or based in the U.S. but have large IT services operations overseas.
Cognizant is a major user of the H-1B visa, but it's unknown whether any H-1B workers were part of the Disney ABC outsourcing project. There were only a handful of contractors on-site, and much of the knowledge transfer appears to have taken place in teleconference sessions.
Disney, when contacted for this story, offered the following general comment about the H-1B program: "The Walt Disney Company makes minimal use of the H-1B visa program to meet very specific needs, in keeping with the spirit and letter of the law. If the program as currently implemented is subject to abuse, we support appropriate action to effectively remedy it."
The outsourcing at Disney's Parks and Resorts division had an impact on the IT workers at Disney ABC.
"Once our department learned of what happened to our Parks and Resorts colleagues, we held no illusion that our recognized knowledge and skills, company loyalty or work ethic would trump a bottom line," said one Disney ABC IT worker prior to finding out the layoffs had been called off. "If the replacement of our personnel is due to an abuse of the H-1B visa program -- I hope exposure will lead to better corporate and national policy."