On 1 April, the US government begins accepting visa applications for 65,000 skilled foreign workers. But much as it could use some extra help, Progress Software Corp. in Bedford won’t be applying for any of these coveted H-1B visas.
Instead, Progress Software, which makes programs to monitor and manage business computing activities, is embracing a different visa programme, called L-1, that lets businesses import workers who have already been hired at their overseas offices. “It’s certainly easier than getting an H-1 visa,” said Todd Tracy, the company’s director of talent planning and acquisition.
Despite the slowing economy, companies still say it’s hard to find enough highly skilled workers. The H-1B programme was designed to help businesses hire capable foreign workers, but demand for the 65,000 visas far exceeded supply in 2007, and the same is expected this year.
Many tech companies have embraced L-1 visas as an alternative to H-1Bs. Companies can apply for the visas at any time of year, and there is no limit to the number of L-1s that can be issued.
But critics of US immigration policy say some companies are misusing the L-1 programme. Bob Meltzer, chief executive of Visanow.com, a Chicago company that processes US visa applications online, did not accuse Progress Software, but said, “We have found and heard lots of stories recently of companies that are really kind of abusing it.”
Many of the leading recipients of L-1 visas are Indian companies such as Infosys Technologies Ltd and Wipro Ltd, and labour outsourcing companies that specialize in providing foreign workers to US companies. The Indian companies’ use of the visas is legal, but Meltzer thinks the L-1 programme should be available only to US-based firms. “It wasn’t created to help the Indian companies,” he said. “It was intended to support American companies and the American economy.”
Some US companies also abuse the L-1 system, according to Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a group that seeks to protect the jobs of US high-tech workers. While the H-1B programme requires employers to pay foreign workers the prevailing US wage for a particular job, the L-1 has no such requirement. Thus, an engineer brought in from, say, India, could be paid the same as in their home country, rather than the much higher pay demanded by US engineers. “There are tens of thousands of foreign workers working in the US, and they continue to be paid their foreign wages,” said Berry.
Republican senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic senator Richard Durbin of Illinois have filed legislation to reform the L-1 and H-1B programmes. Their Bill would require companies to pay a prevailing wage to L-1 visa employees and would forbid the use of L-1 visas by outsourcing companies.
Some in Congress favour jacking up the number of H-1B visas. Arizona Democratic representative Gabrielle Giffords introduced a Bill last week to raise the H-1B visa quota from 65,000 to 130,000 a year. Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, filed legislation to raise the cap to 195,000.
Progress officials wouldwelcome an increase. “We don’t see any decrease in our employment needs at all,” said Joe Andrews, vice-president of human resources at the company.©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES