Laid-off IT workers muzzled as H-1B debate heats up

In the office and in Congress, IT workers are fighting back -- often in silence

flags in protest

Flags went up in silent protest at the former Northeast Utilities, now Eversource Energy. They were taken down once H-1B workers came on-site and occupied the cubicles.

IT workers are challenging the replacement of U.S. employees with foreign visa holders. Lawsuits are on the rise and workers are contacting lawmakers. Disney workers who lost their jobs on Jan. 30, 2015, are especially aggressive.

There's a reason for this. 

The Disney severance package offered to them did not include a non-disparagement clause, making it easier for laid-off workers to speak out. This is in contrast to the severance offered to Northeast Utility workers.

The utility, now known as Eversource Energy and based in Connecticut and Massachusetts, laid off approximately 200 IT employees in 2014 after contracting with two India-based offshore outsourcing firms. The employees contacted local media and lawmakers to pressure the utility to abandon its outsourcing plan.

Some of the utility's IT employees had to train their foreign replacements. Failure to do so meant loss of severance. But an idea emerged to show workers' disdain for what was happening: Small American flags were placed in cubicles and along the hallway in silent protest -- flags that disappeared as the workers were terminated.

The utility employees left their jobs with a severance package that included this sentence: "Employee agrees that he/she shall make no statements to anyone, spoken or written, that would tend to disparage or discredit the Company or any of the Company's officers, directors, employees, or agents."

That clause has kept former Eversource employees from speaking out because of fears the utility will sue them if they say anything about their experience. The IT firms that Eversource uses, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, are major users of the H-1B visa.

But staying silent is difficult, especially after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) co-sponsored legislation in January 2015 that would hike the 65,000 H-1B base cap hike to as high as 195,000. The measure, known as the I-Squared Act, left some of the former utility IT employees incredulous. They were far from alone.

The 200,000-member engineering association, IEEE-USA, said the I-Squared bill would "help destroy" the IT workforce with a flood of lower paid foreign workers.

Eventually, Blumenthal's staff did learn, confidentially, about the experiences of former Eversource IT workers. 

In November, Blumenthal co-sponsored new H-1B legislation by longtime program critics, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), designed to prevent the replacement of U.S. workers by H-1B visa holders.

Nonetheless, Blumenthal remains a co-sponsor of the I-Squared Act, which raised questions among those laid off about his intentions.

"He is still co-sponsoring everything," one former Connecticut utility worker said about Blumenthal. The worker asked not to be identified because of severance package limitations. "He is totally unbelievable." Blumenthal was not immediately available for comment.

Leo Perrero, an IT worker at Disney who was laid off after training his foreign replacement, says non-disparagement agreements hinder the debate over the H-1B visa. Without such agreements, "you would have a lot more people speaking out - real human beings with real stories, not just anonymous persons speaking out," said Perrero.

"Their freedom of speech is being taken away from them with the non-disparagement agreements," he said.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee wanted to hear, last year, from IT employees who had been displaced by H-1B workers. It also wanted them to testify. It reached out nationally to affected employees, but had to settle for written testimony that was kept anonymous by the committee. The workers were too afraid to speak publicly.

In December, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is also the chairman of the Immigration subcommittee, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), introduced an H-1B reform bill that includes a prohibition against non-disparagement clauses.

The bill "would prevent employers who seek access to the (H-1B) program from requiring American employees to sign so-called non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements." The agreements can prevent "American employees from discussing potential misuse of the program publicly."

Non-disparagement clauses are common in severance agreements. But the Disney severance did not have one, and had no prohibition against any claims or lawsuits, said Sara Blackwell, an attorney representing former Disney IT workers. It is unclear why the company went this route.

Fear of jeopardizing new employment also keeps many displaced IT workers quiet. But lawsuits alleging discrimination and racketeering are being filed on behalf of displaced IT workers.

Brian Buchanan, a former Southern California Edison IT worker, is another who trained his foreign replacements. He is now part of a lawsuit alleging discrimination by Tata Consultancy Services, one of the IT services firms used by Edison.  He is also included in a lawsuit challenging the U.S. government's decision to allow spouses of some H-1B workers to seek employment. That lawsuit argues that the added workers will hurt the job market for U.S. workers.  

Buchanan, who has contacted lawmakers about the impact of the H-1B programs, sees "little progress" in the past year. "Americans are going to have to act and they are going to have to act in mass, because we are fighting a huge, unseen force," said Buchanan.

Eversource was asked about the non-disparagement agreement, and had this response: "These are private arrangements between affected employees and our company that were made more than two years ago during a period of transition and change in support of our merger. We have successfully moved on to form a new organization focused on providing superior service and value to our customers."

But many IT workers hurt by offshore outsourcing have not been able to move on. 

Former employees at Disney, Edison and Eversource tell of financial strains, tapped retirement funds and an inability to find a job, or to find one that pays close to what they once made.

Workers will say, anecdotally, that they know of many former co-workers who are now struggling. The H-1B workers tend to be younger, and the displaced ones, older, they say.

"It's hard to start over at 50 when no one wants you," said one former Edison IT worker. That worker is still searching for a job.

This story, "Laid-off IT workers muzzled as H-1B debate heats up" was originally published by Computerworld.

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