U.S. Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Washington — Sen. Richard Blumenthal wants to expand a program that allows U.S. companies to hire workers with specialized skills, but after allegations of abuses, the senator also wants the program investigated.

Blumenthal was among a group of senators who have asked the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Labor Department to determine whether the H-1B visa program is being used by U.S. companies to lay off American workers — many of them specialists in computer skills — and replace them with cheaper foreign labor.

Companies can and do hire holders of H-1B visas directly, but the practice drawing the most scrutiny involves outsourcing work to foreign-owned consulting firms that hire visa holders.

H-1Bs are temporary visas granted to foreign workers in specialized fields such as information technology, architecture, engineering, mathematics, science, and medicine. Major outsourcing firms specialize in information technology, and many are Indian-owned, like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys Ltd., which top the list of companies with H-1B petitions approved by the federal government.

Blumenthal and other senators seeking an investigation say they are concerned about complaints of abuses of the H-1B visa program by Southern California Edison and other employers.

Rules forbid the use of H-1B labor to replace existing domestic employees, but Edison hired Tata and Infosys, and the company says it’s not using H-1B visa holders to replace its employees.

“A number of U.S. employers, including some large, well-known, publicly traded corporations, have reportedly laid off thousands of American workers and replaced them with H-1B visa holders,” Blumenthal and nine other senators wrote in their letter asking for an investigation. “To add insult to injury, many of the replaced American employees report that they have been forced to train the foreign workers who are taking their jobs.”

“The program is set up so you can bring in workers who are cheaper than hiring Americans,” said Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University who testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the H-1B visa program last month.

Hira said that what occurred at Southern California Edison “is flagrant but isn’t an isolated case.”

Hira told the Senate panel that other cases involved Cargill in Minnesota, Harley Davidson in Wisconsin, and Northeast Utilities and Pfizer in Connecticut.

In 2008, Pfizer told research and development workers in New London and Groton they would soon be laid off. But before getting their final paychecks, they were told they’d need to train their replacements: guest workers from India who’d come to the United States on H-1B visas, Hira said in an interview, citing news reports in the Day of New London.

“Pfizer is in full compliance with H-1B regulations,” said spokeswoman Neha Wahdwa. “The business restructuring decisions we make are independent of H-1B or other immigration decisions, and we do not use the H-1B program as a means to displace U.S. workers.”

Northeast Utilities, which rebranded itself recently as Eversource Energy, hired the same firms as Southern California Edison, Tata and Infosys, about the time it announced it would lay off about 200 information technology employees two years ago.

Eversource spokesman Albert Lara said his company has service contracts with Tata and Infosys and doesn’t know how many H-1B visa workers those companies have hired to fulfill those contracts.

“It’s up to them to provide the level of staffing,” Lara said. “Staffing can fluctuate. But we don’t keep track of that, and they are not required to report it.”

As far as applications for the visas, California led the nation with 97,667 last year, followed by Texas with 51,443. Connecticut firms requested 8,866 visas and Montana came in last, with only 132 requests.

If the Labor Department certifies an application for a company, a prospective employee must then file an application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which announced last week it has received enough petitions to reach a statutory cap of 65,000 visas for fiscal year  2016.  H-1B visas are valid for three years and can be renewed.

While Connecticut companies that directly hire an H-1B visa recipient can be readily identified, it is more difficult to determine which companies in the state are outsourcing work to companies that use workers on H-1B visas.

Competing bills

The hearing last month on the H-1B visa program was called by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. Grassley plans to introduce a bill that would keep the visa cap at 65,000 annually and retain an allowance for an additional 20,000 visas for those with advanced degrees. The bill, however, but would add a more rigorous set of checks and balances, such as a requirement that companies try to hire Americans first.

“Over the years the program has become a government-assisted way for employers to bring in cheaper foreign labor, and now it appears these foreign workers take over — rather than complement — the U.S. workforce,” Grassley said.

Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of a competing  bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that is backed by the tech industry. That legislation, known as the I-Squared Act, would raise the base cap for H-1B visas to 195,000 annually and eliminate all restrictions on the hiring of foreign workers who earn advanced degrees from U.S. schools in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

Blumenthal said he also support’s Grassley’s efforts to crack down on abuses.

While the number of H-1B visas must be increased to help companies who need these skilled workers, “at the same time there needs to be action to stop the abuses and to ensure that H-1B workers are paid fairly,” Blumenthal said.

“I’m an enforcement guy,” said Blumenthal, a former Connecticut attorney general.

Blumenthal said he believes the aims of both H-1B visa bills can be married and would like to see reform of the program included in a comprehensive immigration bill.

“It seems Blumenthal is taking a second look at this,” Hira said. “If the truth were out there, it would be a no-brainer to solve the problem.”

‘Driving down wages’

Organized labor has backed Grassley in pushing for new restrictions on the program — and been sharply critical of the I-Squared bill.

Lori Pelletier, executive secretary of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said the H-1B program, as it is right now, is “driving down wages in the IT world.”

Besides displacing American workers, Pelletier said, companies that hire H-1B workers rarely make them a permanent part of the workforce and instead repatriate them when their visas expire.

“They send them back and bring in someone else because it’s cheaper,” she said. “The (H-1B visa) is not a green card. It does nothing to make these workers part of the middle class.”

The Obama administration has not indicated whether it will investigate the allegations of abuses in the H-1B program.

“I’m hopeful that they will,” said Blumenthal. “It would send a powerful message that abuses will not be tolerated.”

Top 10 companies who received H-1B visas in Connecticut
Company Visas

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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