U.S. demand for high-skilled, foreign workers up

Uncertainty on immigration reform worries smaller businesses

April 1, 2013

(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has introduced a bill that would crack down on abuses of the H-1B visa program. Small businesses are waiting to see if it passes before petitioning temporary, skilled foreign nationals to work at their companies.

The opening of the filing period for petitions to bring specialized, educated employees through the H-1B visa program begins Monday, and after years of lagging interest in filling high-skilled jobs with temporary, foreign workers, many anticipate that U.S. companies have found their footing well enough to compete for these specialized employees. Successful petitions will authorize a foreign national to start working at a U.S. company temporarily during the 2014 federal fiscal year, which starts in October of 2013.

“This’ll be the first year in a long time that we anticipate that the cap is going to be reached in the first week in April,” said Eldon Kakuda, an immigration attorney at the Chicago-based law firm Masuda, Funai, Eifert & Mitchell. The U.S. sets a limit of 85,000 H-1B visas every year, a cap that was quickly reached within the first week of accepting petitions in years prior to 2009. In the last four years, however, U.S. employers filed far fewer petitions, sometimes taking up to nine months to reach the limit. “I do think it’s a strong indication that our economy is on the upswing,” said Kakuda.

H1-Bs typically work in the so-called “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, and between 2000 and 2009 nearly half of those visas went to Indian nationals. The program is meant to help companies that can’t find U.S. employees with the requisite skills or experience. “There are not enough US citizens or Americans available with IT skills in the country,” said Shoji Mathew, President of the North American Association of Indian IT Professionals.

But Mathew said small companies with 50-150 employees are nervous to file petitions this year, because of the possibility that Congress will change the H-1B program. In particular, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2013, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), would limit the number of H-1B employees in a company of at least 50 people to 50 percent. It would also enact more rigorous compliance audits with the program, and set a wage level for H-1B workers that is higher than what most employers currently pay foreign nationals on those visas.

Mathew said many of the small companies have started the application process for H-1B petitions, but are nervous about completing paperwork before legislators finish their work. “What happens if a company has 250 employees and, say, 80 percent is H1Bs?” asked Mathew. “They say why we should we apply for H1B (when) they’re on the verge of laying off their employees?”

But some hope that the bill will pass, citing suspected abuses of the H-1B program. “There’s a huge demand for underpaid workers through this program,” said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Costa said that though federal law requires employers to pay H-1B workers at a prevailing wage, the law gives pay scale options depending on the profession. “And the vast majority of the time they choose the lowest wage or the second-lowest wage, both of which are below the average wage,” said Costa.

Costa added that the bill would close some loopholes in the H-1B program, while giving U.S. workers a fair shot at those jobs by requiring employers to post job openings on the Department of Labor’s website, for all interested candidates to see. “We need to recruit and get and retain the best and brightest workers, especially in these STEM fields,” said Costa, “But there’s no evidence that we have some huge shortage. There’s always going to be a need for the workers, but we should just have some really basic protections in place for U.S. workers.”

At the same time, Washington lawmakers are considering a separate, bipartisan bill to expand the number of H-1B visas.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. You can follow her at @oyousef.