For some foreign workers, Seattle tech layoffs can mean a forced exit


A person walks by The Spheres at the Amazon.com Inc headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Laid-off employees who have been in Seattle as ‘guest workers’ on temporary work visas may be forced to leave the US if they aren’t rehired in 60 days. — AFP

SEATTLE: For many of the thousands of Seattle tech workers who’ve been laid off or will be in coming weeks, the pain will be short-lived.

They’ll update their résumés, work their networks and, eventually, find new jobs in an industry that, despite the current slowdown, is expected to be short on talent for years to come.

But for the newly jobless techies who also happen to be foreign nationals, those pink slips may pose a much bigger problem.

Laid-off employees who have been here as “guest workers” on temporary work visas may be forced to leave the US if they aren’t rehired in 60 days. That has left hundreds and possibly thousands of workers scrambling for jobs at a moment when many local tech companies aren’t taking their calls.

“It’s stressful not only for myself, but for my family,” said a worker who was just cut from Amazon. Under the rules of his visa type, he, his wife and their children must leave unless he finds a suitable new role at Amazon – a company that, he notes, is reportedly planning to cut 10,000 positions.

“There was no point in trying to stay,” said a European who was laid off from the Seattle offices of Facebook parent Meta and has opted to move home after assessing the job market.

Both workers asked not to be identified to protect future job prospects and severance packages.

“Their livelihoods and, to a large degree, their stability are now totally in flux,” said Kaj Pedersen, who came to the United States from England on a temporary work visa and is now chief technology officer at AstrumU, a Kirkland-based artificial intelligence firm with many foreign staffers.

In such uncertain times, Pedersen said, “you’re going, ‘Damn – I’ve got to give up everything I’ve just worked for ... and go back and restart’.”

It’s not yet clear how many of the estimated 18,000 layoffs reported at Seattle-area tech firms affect employees holding a temporary work visa or waiting for a permanent resident green card.

Washington state doesn't break out job losses by visa status, and individual employers don't typically share how many of their foreign employees were laid off.

But given the large volume of foreign workers who stream into the Seattle-area tech sector each year under various temporary work programmes, the number who’ve just lost those jobs could be substantial, said Tahmina Watson, a Seattle immigration attorney.

“It’s unprecedented at this scale,” said Watson, who has been fielding calls from newly jobless foreign tech workers. “The anxiety level ... is just skyrocketing.”

Since 2009, Amazon has filed more than 26,000 petitions to hire or rehire foreign workers on H-1B visas, the most common work visa, which allows skilled foreigners up to six years at jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. Microsoft has filed more than 18,000 H-1B petitions in that same period. (Another common visa, the L-1, lets employers temporarily transfer workers from their foreign operations to their US offices.)

Amazon and Microsoft declined to comment on the number of foreign workers they’ve hired or laid off.

Foreign workers have also played important roles at other firms with Seattle headquarters or operations, including tech firms such as Expedia, Twitter, Google, Facebook and Zillow, as well as nontech firms with growing digital operations, such as Nordstrom and Starbucks.

In 2021, nearly 70% of all H-1B visa holders worked in computer-related jobs, according to federal statistics. The most common birth country was India (74%), followed by China (12.4%); nearly three-quarters were male, and 55% had a master’s degree. Nationally, the average salary for H-1B holders was US$108,000, federal data shows, but salaries ranged from around US$120,000 to around US$150,000 at several larger Seattle-are tech firms, according to a commercial site that tracks US visa statistics.

Now, as layoffs sweep many of those Seattle-area tech firms, hundreds and possibly thousands of temporary workers may be at risk of losing both their current livelihood and, potentially, any prospects they had for a longer stay: Joblessness can also derail efforts to get permanent residence.

And all that can happen with a single phone call or email from HR, workers say. “You go from, ‘My work and my life is in Seattle’ to ... ‘Well, I’m returning to my home country where I haven’t lived in, you know, years’,” the former Meta worker said.

For many foreign workers, such a fate may feel especially undeserved. Since the 1990s, skilled foreign workers helped US tech firms grow rapidly despite a historic shortage of qualified US-born applicants, said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor and expert in immigration labour economics at the University of California, San Diego.

In Washington state, roughly 30% of all STEM jobs – those centered on science, technology, engineering or math – were filled by foreign-born workers, the fourth-highest percentage in the United States, as of 2019, according to the American Immigration Council.

Much of the US tech boom “would really not have existed without the influx of immigrant labour”, Khanna said.

But foreign tech workers often pay a steep price to participate in the US job market.

In exchange for high US salaries, fat stock options and a potential pathway to US citizenship, foreign workers endure an application process that is lengthy and uncertain.

In 2022, the US government received more than 480,000 applications for just 85,000 H-1B visa slots issued via a lottery. (Indeed, despite temporary workers’ large role in Washington’s tech sector, they account for only a small fraction of the state’s roughly 1.1 million foreign-born residents.)

Once here, temporary foreign workers may face exploitation. Though temporary workers must be paid the “prevailing” US wage, their desire to remain employed and avoid visa complications is so strong they’re often “willing to work longer hours and (do) all the other things that are demanded of them”, Khanna said.

And of course, temporary foreign workers who lose their jobs anyway face a daunting bureaucratic gantlet.

Even in a healthy economy, 60 days is barely enough time for a temporary worker to land a new job. For starters, they need to find an employer willing to deal with all the necessary regulations and paperwork, Watson said.

Their job search may be slowed further by the lack of a strong professional network. “They haven’t necessarily had the time to really build those strong relationships because they’re just trying to figure out ‘How do I live in the US day-to-day’ – taxes and living accommodations and getting to work and doing my job,” said Pedersen, the H-1B worker-turned-chief technical officer at AstrumU.

In a tight labour market, all those challenges are magnified.

Jobless temporary workers hoping to stay in the Seattle area these days must compete with thousands of others for a much smaller pool of job openings, economists and business leaders say.

What's more, in a tight labor market, fewer employers will take on the “red tape” and other complexities of immigration law, said Scott Railton, a Bellingham-based immigration attorney who works with Seattle-area employers. Unless a temporary worker has especially in-demand skills, he said, “an HR department certainly would go with the US worker”.

Jobless foreign workers aren’t without options. They can try to buy time by, for example, applying for a visitor’s visa while they look for work. They can leave the US and restart the visa process once they find a new employer to sponsor them. (Those who stay past 60 days risk penalties, including, in extreme cases, not being allowed back in the US for several years.)

Others, however, may choose to go to other countries, such as Canada, where immigration regulations can be less daunting.

That possibility worries many US industry officials and economists, who argue that US demand for tech talent will likely continue to outstrip the supply of qualified domestic candidates.

Another concern: Without changes in immigration law – doubling the 60-day window, for example – the problems many foreign workers are facing now in the US may dissuade others from betting on America in the future.

What if graduates “in India and China look at things like this and say, ‘Well, it’s not a great idea to go to the US, and I’d rather work in Google’s office ... in Mumbai or Beijing ... or work in Canada or Australia’?” said the University of California’s Khanna.

For now, though, the allure of a US job and the life and opportunities that come with it remain a powerful “foghorn” for immigrants “for areas like Silicon Valley and Seattle”, Pedersen said.

Indeed, the draw remains potent even for some workers who may have to leave the US in coming weeks and start the process all over.

“If there’s a good opportunity, I’ll choose the US again,” said the former Amazon worker, who appeared not to hold a grudge against an immigration system poised to uproot him and his family.

“If you want to (work) to the United States," he said, “then you have to follow the rules.” – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service

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