For foreign workers on H-1B visas, getting laid off can spell disaster. : The Indicator from Planet Money Many sectors of the American economy depend on foreign nationals holding H-1B work visas for valuable skilled labor. But if a H-1B visa holder gets laid off, they're on their own.

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The precarity of the H-1B work visa

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Sometimes you just get a feeling that things are not going to go your way. This is actually how Shubha Suresh felt a few months ago after the company she worked for in Boston got acquired.

SHUBHA SURESH: On the day of, we had two meetings. Like, the entire company was split into two groups. One was the group that made it, and one was the group that was going to be let go. Like, a few hours before the announcement, I got switched into the layoff group, and I'm like, OK, here we go again.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

Here we go again - because about two years before that, Shubha was laid off from her previous job.

SURESH: I think it was a mixture of feelings. Like, emotionally, like, confusion was one of it. I'm like, what's going on? And second was - like, of course, I was a little bit angry. Like, what happened? Like, why me?

MA: Now, companies lay people off every day in this country. But for Shubha, her situation was different than most. And that is because Shubha is here in the U.S. on what's called an H-1B visa. That means when she got laid off, she only had about 60 days to find a new job, or she would have to leave the country. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. H1-B workers are really prevalent in the tech industry, which, as we're seeing this week, continues to have companies lay off thousands of workers. And H-1B holders are also common in other STEM fields, like science and engineering.

MA: Also, industries you might not think of, like entertainment or consulting or even fashion modeling, all kinds of companies.

WONG: But what happens when those companies don't want those workers anymore? Today on the show, we'll hear the rest of Shubha's story and what it's like to be laid off when your legal right to be in the country is on the line.

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MA: Shubha is originally from the city of Chennai, in southern India. And growing up there, she said it was a dream of hers to one day be a scientist in the U.S. So she moved here on a student visa in 2009 and for about seven years worked towards earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. Later on, she got a job at a biotech company in California.

SURESH: I still remember the date when I actually got the offer, and I signed it. And it was a dream. And as a woman in STEM - and being an immigrant and having these uncertainties adds that extra layer, so that's why I was very happy when I landed it. And...

WONG: The job? It was working in the lab as a strain engineer.

SURESH: Which literally means that I'm engineering the microbes. So I have experience in editing the genome, putting in new pieces of DNA or, like, removing existing pieces of DNA so that they can do what we want them to do.

MA: I'm sort of picturing you in front of a workbench with, like, a big microbe there, and you've got, like, your hammer and saw. Is it kind of like that?

SURESH: Yeah, only that you have to be much, much gentler and sometimes talk to them, you know?

WONG: Shubha and her microbes should have a podcast. I would listen to that.

MA: That's the kind of content that goes viral.

WONG: (Laughter).

MA: So as you can tell, Shubha loves what she does. But the fact is, she might not be doing this at all in the U.S. if the government had not granted her an H-1B visa the year she applied. And she had to be kind of lucky because each year roughly 400,000 people apply to a lottery for one of these visas, and only about 1 in 5 applicants typically gets one.

WONG: So why is it so popular? Well, what the H-1B does is allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S. for up to six years. The idea is it's not designed as a path to permanent residency. Instead, it's a temporary path for foreign workers with special skills to fill jobs that U.S. companies might otherwise have trouble filling. Now, it's worth mentioning that the program does have its critics, folks who say large companies can game the system by hiring H-1B workers as a cheaper alternative to Americans, even though there are legal safeguards that are supposed to prevent that.

MA: Another important thing to know about H-1B visas is that the workers getting them have to be sponsored by a specific employer. And like we said at the top, if a person on an H-1B visa loses their job, they are legally required to find another employer who's willing to sponsor their visa within 60 days, or they got to leave the country. Now, remember, Shubha found herself in this situation not once but twice. The first time was early in the pandemic, when a lot of employers barred their workers from coming into the office.

SURESH: My job is totally, like, an on-site bench space. I cannot take the microbes home and work with that, you know? As - even though I see molds in my fridge, I cannot work with them.

WONG: By mid-April, Shubha was getting this uneasy feeling.

SURESH: I was asking my manager, like, hey, should I be worried? Like, what - should I be looking for jobs? And so there was no indication from my supervisors even that there was a problem.

WONG: A few weeks later, the company announced over Zoom that it would be laying off employees. And soon after, Shubha was called into a meeting and given the bad news.

SURESH: I felt defeated because it was my first job, and I was very excited. I really loved what I was doing, and I cannot do it anymore. And I think those were, like, the immediate thoughts that drop in my head - like, more denial than anything else.

MA: After the shock and the denial wore off, the legal reality set in.

SURESH: The immediate question was, I need to find a job because the visa has to be transferred in 60 days to the new company. So I was just thinking, like, OK, in 60 days, if I have to deport the country, like, where would I go?

MA: Right? Like, was she going to have to break her lease and, like, sell off all the furniture she had - move back to India?

WONG: Shubha knew she didn't have time to sit and contemplate worst-case scenario. So she got to work finding a new job. She posted on LinkedIn saying, hey, I'm available. She enlisted her friends to help her compile a spreadsheet of potential employers, and she started applying, sending out resumes. She took phone calls with companies that were interested in hiring but also knew that she was in this vulnerable spot, that she was facing this ticking clock.

SURESH: And that was very draining because I think you have to still put up a positive face when you talk to a potential employer or someone who is trying to recruit you. At the same time, you are dealing with so much emotions internally. So it was very draining to have that dual personality, for lack of a better word.

MA: Eventually, though, it paid off. Shubha landed a job with a biotech company in Boston, which was a relief. But it also meant that she had to move across the country. And as we heard at the top, Shubha would eventually get laid off from that company also. For a second time, Shubha found herself needing to find a job within 60 days or possibly having to leave the country. But having been down this road before, Shubha was better prepared. And she said she managed to find another job at a biotech company in Boston relatively quick.

WONG: And she loves it. She says it's her dream job. But the whole experience of hopping between jobs in different cities and having her legal right to be here tethered to her employment, it's added this feeling of instability to her life. It's hard to make long-term career plans, to make life plans.

SURESH: I love being here. I've built my career here, and I've built everything here. And I would love to continue working in the U.S. and, like, gaining more experience and contributing my knowledge or, like, whatever I give back. At the same time, the immigration system is taking a toll on me, like, most - like, health-wise, and also, like, very emotionally. I love to be here, but at the same time, it depends on where I reach that breaking point.

WONG: For Shubha, there is a way out of the H1-B limbo, and that is to get an employer-sponsored green card, which would allow her to live in the U.S. permanently. But actually getting one can be a multiyear process. And every time she's moved to a new company, she has to start that process from scratch.

SURESH: Right now, I'm purely driven by my passion for science and my job. But having that happiness added and, like, the stress removed would make a really, really huge positive impact, not just for me but also for people around me. And I think about that a lot.

MA: This is the dilemma for Shubha and hundreds of thousands of other folks here on H-1B visas. Working in the U.S. can be a huge career opportunity. But at a certain point, is it worth the trouble to stay?

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MA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin, with engineering by Maggie Luthar and Robert Rodriguez. Viet Le is our senior producer. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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