Boston, Massachusetts — Divyanshu Pandey, a Duke University graduate, received his H-1B sponsorship in September 2019, and was working as a business operations analyst at a tech and rental industry startup in Dallas, Texas, when he was laid off a week ago due to the sudden economic slowdown prompted by the global novel coronavirus pandemic.
“As hard as it is for me, if I was in the company’s position, I would do the same,” said Pandey, whose company was in the middle of a Series A funding round when the pandemic hit America.
Since early March, unemployment claims in the United States have jumped by a whopping 3,000%. In just the last week, 6.6 million people have filed for unemployment benefits, according to data released by the country’s Bureau of Labour Statistics. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman predicts that unemployment could rise further to a record-breaking 20% in the next two weeks.
As the US economy slows, H-1B visa holders — three fourths of whom are Indian — are faced with the prospect of losing their jobs and health insurance amidst a raging pandemic. As of date, the United States has the largest number of coronavirus cases in the world, with over 360,000 confirmed infections and almost 11,000 deaths according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The laid-off workers, who will no longer be able to access the health insurance provided by their employers, now have just 60 days to find a similar full-time job or leave the country.
Dan Nandan, the CEO of Hire IT People Inc., a recruitment company in New Jersey, estimates that over 20-25% of H-1B employees could lose their jobs and be forced to return home in the coming weeks as the crisis worsens. Just in the past two weeks, Nandan has received 150 phone calls and resumes of people with H-1B visas looking for a new job. This is up from just 2-3 calls a month earlier.
“American companies can put the US citizens on furlough (temporary unpaid leave or reduced hours) but with H-1B workers, they have to ensure that they are on the payroll for all of the 40 hours and also that they are paid the same amount and nothing less,” said Kevin Pinto, a product manager from Mumbai, India, who was one of the many international employees who were let go two weeks ago from a mid-sized tech company in Boston, Massachusetts, a day before he finished two years in the company. “It is convenient for companies to put international students and people with H-1Bs aside.”
Indians tend to be the single largest beneficiary of the H-1B visa programme. Two thirds of all H-1B registrants this year were Indian, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) department. The H-1B programme is a non-immigrant work permit that allows US employers to hire foreign workers in specialist occupations. Tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google are often the top H1-B visa recipients.
The US Tech Workers, a non-profit body representing American tech workers, has already asked President Donald Trump to suspend the H1-B visa programme for this year given the rapidly rising unemployment. H-1B rejections had already skyrocketed under the Trump administration, rising from 6% in 2015 to 21% in 2019, according to the National Foundation for American Policy. This includes both new employment and “continuing” employment. The denial rate for those continuing employment—which includes extension for employees in the same company or change/transfer of employers—is now four times higher than it was in 2015.
“These are not just immigrants, these are the doctors and nurses treating patients without PPE gears, these are software engineers who are enabling banks to function and building softwares that are allowing people to work from home and the economy to run, these are researchers working towards a cure,” said Aman Kapoor, the president of Immigration Voice, a non-profit organization working on Indian immigration issues. “Imagine if 15,000 Indian doctors had to suddenly leave the country.”
Kapoor sees this new wave of H-1B layoffs as a symptom of a greater immigration problem where it would take high-skill Indian immigrants over 60 years to receive lawful permanent residence in the US—giving ample time for their employers to make cuts or for the economic situation to change. Public policy think-tank CATO Institute estimates that around 200,000 Indians could die of old age while waiting for their green cards.
Joblessness and the 60-day clock
Losing a job on an H-1B visa can be devastating: visa holders are ineligible for unemployment benefits because accessing these is contingent on the employee being eligible for future employment. They must either find a similar full-time job with the same pay-scale in the next 60 days or leave the country.
Unemployed H-1B holders will also lose the health insurance provided by their employers at a time when hospitalisation for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, could cost up to $72,000 according to an estimate by the Washington Post. H-1B workers are also ineligible for Medicaid, the federal government programme that provides health coverage to low-asset people.
Pandey, the Duke graduate who was laid off, is worried that transferring his H-1B status to another company in the 60-days grace period would prove incredibly difficult, given the hiring freezes.
“Even if I were to find a company willing to hire me, the recruitment and hiring process alone might take four weeks,” he said.
A petition in the White House by Hire IT People’s Dan Nandan, pushing to extend the grace period to 180 days to allow the employees a better chance at finding another job, has attracted almost 45,000 signatures thus far. It needs 100,000 by April 18, 2020, to warrant a response from The White House.
“Most H1B workers are from India and cannot travel home with children who are U.S Citizens as many nations announced an entry ban, including India,” the petition stated.
As of now, both Kevin Pinto and Divyanshu Pandey cannot return home as India has declared a ban on all international flights (except cargo) until April 14, 2020. If the travel bans are extended, Pinto and Pandey could find themselves overstaying their visas.
On April 2, 2020, the Consulate General of India, New York, released a travel advisory stating that there are no evacuation flights to take Indian citizens back to India as of now.
“You have to understand that it is not a problem that can be solved by evacuation. How many people can you evacuate? The numbers are in hundreds of thousands, if not millions,” said the Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty in a Facebook live interview with ITV Gold. “Secondly, who will you give priority? There are all kinds of people who are here: there are students, there are tourists, there are elderly and sick people who came from India to spend time with their families.”
As of now, there is little clarity by the USCIS on the subject of visa expirations. A few days ago, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security had stated that people can apply for their visa extensions to the USCIS and expect that their request is “favorably received by USCIS” if an extension is requested and flights to their country are not operational. If flights are available and the applicant’s visa period is coming to an end, they will be expected to return home, the official added.
The author is an Indian-origin freelance journalist and researcher currently based in Boston.