Priya K*, a techie, is employed in a tech startup in USA and is an H-1B visa holder. These two reasons could be enough for anyone to be assured about job security. But she has not been able to sleep for the past few weeks due to anxiety issues.
"I wake up sweating thinking when we will have to leave the country," said Priya, fearing that her company, like many others in the USA, may get rid of H-1B workers.
"There are many who are working without pay. It will not be too long before layoff begins," she said. She has a year-old daughter and her husband holds H-1B visa as well.
"If both of us lose, we will just have to pack up and go home," she added.
Priya's sentiments are far from misplaced. An industry source estimated that close to 20-30 percent of H-1B and H4 visa holders may be forced to return home in the next 5-7 months. "This is only an estimate as things are changing fast and the number may increase,” the source said.
In the US, there are close to 3,00,000 H-1B visa holders.
It does not matter that some of them have been working in the US for as long as 10-15 years and are on their way to become permanent residents or citizens.
Indian tech companies have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of H-1B visa. For Indians, the visa is a passport to becoming a permanent resident and it would not be too much of a stretch to say it has attracted many of them to the IT field. However the grand American dream is once again staring at uncertainty, now due to coronavirus outbreak.
The novel coronavirus outbreak in January, which intensified in March, had a huge impact across sectors. The US has close to 2.77 lakh COVID-19 positive cases with death toll amounting to 7,000.
In the US, one of the biggest markets for the IT firms, unemployment is on the rise. According to reports, close to 6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week. A CNBC report pegs the job losses in the US to be about 47 million.
To ensure business continuity some of the enterprises have started retrenchment and are cutting down their budget.
Larger retailers such as JCPenny and Macy's have laid off workers. Hotel major Marriott too has reportedly laid off 4,000 employees. Norwegian Air has laid off 50 percent of its workforce. According to reports, British Airways is likely to layoff close to 30,000 people.
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Jyotsna Sharma, who is a board member of non-profit group Highly Skilled Immigrants for America, said: "In situations like this (COVID-19 outbreak), it is the H-1B workers who are at the risk of losing their jobs."
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All these will directly impact the Indian IT service providers and its IT workers, who are contract employees there.
The many challenges
The employees will face multiple issues. If their H-1B visas are valid and their job contract is terminated, they will have 60 days to find a new job. However, given the travel restrictions and recession, it will be difficult if not impossible, to find a new job.
If their H-1B visa is expiring, renewing them now is tough since the USCIS and embassies are closed. The USCIS said in a statement that relaxation would be given to Request for Evidence (RFE) for renewals, but there is not much clarity on the stand the companies will take.
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In case of rejections, they will have to change their status to B2 visa (visitor).
"This means that they cannot look for new jobs. So they will have to come back to India, find a new employer to sponsor the H-1B," said Netra Chavan, who runs a Facebook group for H-1B and H4 visa holders.
This is applicable for those in the green card queue as well. Some of them have been working in the US for more than a decade. In case of H4 EAD (Employment Authorisation Document), whose visa validity depends on his/her spouse's H-1B, will also be impacted.
Another issue, Chavan pointed out, is passport renewals.
"Many here who had applied for passport renewals are stuck. They cannot extend their visa nor change their status," she said.
While the government may relax rules given the situation, there is no clarity yet on that front from them, said Chavan.
There is a fear of immigration law implications, where visa holders fear a lot of detention or forced deportation during pandemic situations, she added.
Fear and hopelessness
Demand for H-1B came down in FY07 and FY08 as the US faced high unemployment and many corporate houses cutting down budgets and were unable to hire from abroad, according to a report by Brookings.edu.
In FY10 as well, there were more than 20,000 slots of the 65,000 available for H-1B as the sentiments did not improve, the report added. So thousands returned home then.Follow our full coverage here