Can Remote Work Help Curb H-1B Visa Use?

H-1B Visa
H-1B Visa

If you ask many domestic tech workers, H-1B is a problem. Ask the executives hiring foreign workers, and they often say there’s not enough talent stateside to keep business operations up and running. As the debate rages on, we’re left to wonder if a stronger remote-work culture might ease tensions.

According to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) study, nearly a quarter-million (237,837 if you’re interested) H-1B jobs went to those working in “computer-related occupations” during 2016. That’s 69.1 percent of all H-1B visas granted last year.

Distilling the numbers a bit further, 203,025 H-1B visas went to workers in “systems analysis and programming.” Some 58.8 percent of all H-1B visa holders were in this category. Unfortunately, we can’t say which positions they actually hold.

It’s a tricky situation. Legally, companies can’t pay an H-1B visa recipient any less than a domestic worker in the same position, so it’s not a cost-saving technique (at least in theory). But many critics claim there’s plenty of domestic talent, and that’s antithetical to sourcing overseas tech workers.

Outsourcing itself is a related issue, and it’s typically a move to supplant entire departments or branches of an operation. That’s in contrast to H-1B, meant for individual jobs, with workers brought stateside. They stay, too; the percentage of H-1B workers who are given jobs and continue in their positions year-over-year is nearly identical.

Could a stronger remote culture help heal the issues related to H-1B and outsourcing? Ed Szofer, CEO of SenecaGlobal, said: “SenecaGlobal’s team has done this successfully for close to 20 years, without ever tapping the H1-B model and without migrating any workers. Local talent in the US is supplemented with global talent, where everyone works from their own country. This model also ensures that American technology workers are not put at a disadvantage.”

Szofer also notes subcontracting labor is a bad move:

When the companies need H1-B workers onsite, they should eliminate or reduce the number of middle men involved. Subcontracting and multiple layers of subcontracting have reduced the value the companies are getting at the end. When someone enters the US with an H1-B visa, they are supposed to have a place to work. Why are they shopping around for a job upon arrival? The truth is that many of these workers without skill are entering without a real job that is a prerequisite to get an H1-B. When they are subcontracted at multiple levels, the problems only get compounded.

Szofer hits on a touchy subject with regard to ‘local’ talent. Even in Silicon Valley, many companies have trouble encouraging developers and engineers to commute more than an hour from their homes (each way) for a good job. As a result, companies with a bustling remote work culture are at an advantage in tight talent markets.

There are many examples of companies that have succeeded by emphasizing remote work. For example, GitHub employs most of its talent remotely. While it’s difficult to know which positions are attracting the most H-1B workers, it stands to reason that at least a portion can be filled easily by local (or semi-local workers) who “e-commute” to the office; a JavaScript developer doesn’t necessarily need face-to-face interactions all day. In theory, you could leave the visas to those jobs that require highly specialized knowledge on-site, such as a hardware engineer at an electric-car company.

Dice data shows that working remotely is something many professionals in the tech industry are actively seeking. The headaches of acquiring and managing an H-1B visa could very well drive a tech firm into looking at how well it could manage remote employees, instead. Evidence suggests that remote workers are just as capable and performant as those who drag themselves into an office every day.

While we wait for the visa program’s federal reform (if any), there’s still reason to think changes to the H-1B program should be tackled on a company level first. In that case, remote employees might be an avenue worth pursuing.

25 Responses to “Can Remote Work Help Curb H-1B Visa Use?”

  1. Miss Tekkie

    If the work is done by telecommuters, sure, there would be fewer H-1B visa holders, but the work would still be farmed out to foreign labor. The workers would simply be working in India instead of in the U.S. It’s even cheaper for the employer. An H-1B visa holder makes 40% less than an American working stateside; someone in India makes 20% less, and is not contributing to the American economy by living here, renting an apartment, buying groceries, etc. The work would still be done by non-Americans, but invisibly.

    • Miss Tekkie

      Sorry, I made a typo. I meant to type that workers in India make 80% less than Americans working in the U.S.; i.e. they make only 20% of what an American makes. Thus, they make a lot less than even H-1B visa holders working in the States.

    • Patrick Jeremy Flanagan

      The myth that H-1Bs don’t impact US workers is a sleight of hand trick. They say that H-1Bs are paid the same as US workers. This is technically true however, diluting the labor force reduces wage bargaining for both the H-1B and the US citizen. This has the end effect of causing wage stagnation for all workers, year over year that we’ve seen in the software development industry.

      Over the past 10 years we have seen millions of jobs go to H-1Bs which means that the labor market went up at least twice that (foreign and local grown). This huge influx of talent reduces bargaining rights of the existing talent looking for work. It’s a bad direction and making the industry unattractive for the brightest minds.

      Employers also use the other sleight of hand to say that Americans won’t do the work. Well, no they won’t drive 2 hours a day to work or pull 60 hours a week every week. Nobody wants to do that but throw in a few million H-1Bs tied to their continued employment and such an individual exists.

      It’s a shame that nothing is going to change on this front. At least not until serious political upheaval transpires in Washington D.C.

      • Patrick says: “They say that H-1Bs are paid the same as US workers. This is technically true…”

        Actually it is false. The Indian companies that consume the bulk of the H1-B visas import their people from their stables in India, pay them their original Indian salaries ($10,000/yr), plus approximately 1/2 of the GSA per-diem. They charge the client a somewhat lower consulting rate (making it attractive to the client), pocket the enormous margins, depressing the market for IT in the US, and when tax time arrives these individuals declare a $10,000/yr income, receiving Earned Income Credit from the US treasury.

        Bad deal all around – IT professionals are not only screwed in the suppressing of salaries and rates, but we taxpayers end up subsidizing these job killers on top of that.

          • Yes, Red White and Blue, they are required to file income tax returns, both state and federal although no income tax are owed due to low declared income, and pay social security and disability (SDI) taxes from their meager income (around 8% = about $800/yr total) and then get the subsidy from the US treasury (the infamous Earned Income Credit).

          • Red White and Blue

            Wow, I had no idea that someone on an H-1B visa would qualify for EITC. Thought you had to be at least a permanent resident (green card holder) to qualify for government assistance, which is what this is. At 10,000 a year, they would qualify for food stamps, too, but I think you’d need at least a green card for that.

          • Not sure about food stamps, etc. They may, as they have social security numbers (or equivalent).

            What I do know is that these rip-off companies don’t offer them even medical insurance. One of these imported “gurus” who was working on contract under my supervision had a 2 year old sick daughter, and he could not afford to pay a doctor for her.

            This whole situation is unconscionable on so many fronts, it makes me sick every time I think about it. And then the hiring companies declare profits of tens of billions of dollars every year. Do they REALLY need to stoop to this form of slavery to make yet a few bucks more?

            Disgusting, repulsive, and immoral. It should stop.

        • Miss Tekkie

          Do those H-1B visa holders get Social Security numbers? Don’t see how they can file income tax returns (and get EITC) without it. It’s bad enough that they are taking our jobs; they shouldn’t be taking our tax dollars, too.

          • As far as I understand, they get a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) and pay FICA taxes. (They showed me their tax returns while seeking help.)

            Whether they would qualify for Social Security payments, you have to work 40 quarters (10 years) in the US to qualify, and I am not sure about citizenship requirements.

            In my book this H1-B visa is a scam perpetrated by our politicians who are (legally) bribed by the companies seeking this special treatment, they mistreat their “employees” who are afraid to complain about anything for fear of being sent back. This leads to legal slavery. Weren’t they caught stuffing 11 “Engineers” into a small house in Palo Alto a couple of years back?

            It needs to stop.

  2. Several ogranizations who are not subject to cap, files h1b anytime. I believe they go for it to reduce costs. They should hire students from colleges.
    USCIS never bother to inspect any petition if the employer is financially good. I believe each petition’ place of work can be easily inspected. Randon inspection is meaningless.

    The main drawback government not identifying is fake universities and thousand of students (even they dont have talent) are importing into US. This will create problems for students who rised in US competing with students abroad who simply done masters by online or in univerisities where they dont teach at all but get masters. There are other universities who have affiliations with universities abroad where students study one year there and one year in US. Also students apply with one university for visa and once they come here they will change to a cheap and simplest Universities to get Masters. This is really annoying when US students who got to go through much hardwork to pass bachelors and masters losing jobs to these students
    Once strict F1 rules implemented and remove affilations for fake Universities that will also have an impact to reduce h1b because staffing companies do not have local sources to train and send to projects.
    There are thousand of green cards and citizens unemployed because these reasons.
    Please protect US students who do real hardwork.

  3. Competition Orange

    It seems to me that about the time that H1-B was being used a lot in tech and the dropping in percentage of females in Tech are somewhat correlated. I have always wondered if there was a cause and effect relationship that could be determined here.

    • Miss Tekkie

      I hear you! I am a woman in I.T.; have been working in the field since 1980. Back then it was reported that 1/3 of I.T. workers were female; the numbers have been shrinking over the years. Where I work they have brought in a lot of H-1B workers from India. While there are a few women, almost all are male–I’d say 95%. I think you have a point there; the growing number of imported workers is causing the overall percentage of women in the field to shrink because of the extreme gender imbalance in the imported Indian workforce. Thanks for you post!

    • Patrick Jeremy Flanagan

      It’s the hours worked and the demands for traveling as well. While men are fully capable of working like that (but shouldn’t) women are hard pressed to balance family life with work life. It’s impossible really and nobody should be expected to carry those sort of work hours.

      We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have millions of H-1Bs diluting the labor market. Americans would have better bargaining power to say what we’re willing to work for and what hours we work. Employers would be obligated to hire American and that would be that. What the H-1B fight is all about is labor bargaining power. It’s always been about that.

  4. I think America would be a better place overall if remote work was embraced for Americans. We have small towns crumbling everywhere because there is no work. Why not give people a choice on where they want to live? We’d probably not even nerd H1B if our workforce was more flexible.

    I’m not a fan of H-1B. I work at a large company and there are entire departments that are difficult to break into unless you’re Indian.

  5. Billy Bob Johnson

    So as an American worker, I’m supposed to take heart in the fact that corporate executives would feel more “comfy cozy” if they don’t have the hassles of H-1B employees, but instead have telecommuters working from Asia??? It’s still a loss for the American worker.

    As for the H-1B worker hitting the U.S. without an employer, that is a failure on the part of the government. No employer when you arrive? Get sent back home. That’s what SHOULD happen.

    There also needs to be better screening for actual skills. I’ve spoken to too many H-1B workers who went to a quick training course in the specific software they’d be using only a couple of weeks before coming here. Upon arrival, other H-1B and green card employees would help the worker to get up to speed. Meanwhile, college graduates in IT (yes, they still exist) are passed over by corporations for being inexperienced.

    • Billy Bob Johnson – the H1b workers without jobs were hired by the ‘bodyshops’ like Infosys – they are brought over as employees of Infosys and then farmed out as needed. Its insidious and happens with all the bodyshops. They have a big department devoted to handling the work visas and getting around the loopholes. IMO, as a result of the investigation of the mis-use of B1 visas by Infosys over a 7 year period – resulting in the payment of a $35million fine – we should NOT be allowing Infosys any access to any US visas. There is no good reason to allow continued, repeated abuse. If they were misusing B1 visas we can expect them to misuse L1 and H1b visas at the same rate – common sense. It’s all rotten.

  6. My biggest problem is that one whole division of my team works in India. And yet, we have to accommodate their schedule. When I have users experiencing an issue here in the US, they have to wait until late in the evening for anyone to address it. Do you know how annoying it is to arrange a meeting with people on the West Coast, East Coast and also in India?! And don’t get me started on all the holidays they have over there!

  7. Dan Hake

    As for 2 hour commutes, most people can’t afford to live 1 hour or less close to work. Look at the housing costs on the Peninsula and up in the City (San Francisco). I used to live in Mountain View. Couldn’t afford it now.

    • Patrick Jeremy Flanagan

      Absolutely Dan. That’s also part of the problem. Those big salaries on the west coast sound great until you see the price of homes and the rentals. The H-1Bs will do the commute because it’s better than being sent home. This just another example of the sort of leverage employers are given over job seekers in the presence of H-1B and outsourcing.

    • Red White and Blue

      But not everyone lives in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley. I live in Chicago, for example. My commute is about 45 minutes door-to-door, though I have suburban colleagues with longer commutes to our workplace in the city. And the Americans are willing to put up with those commutes.

  8. Larry Tessari

    I understand that if you file a complaint with USCIS because you believe someone is here due to abuse of the H1-B system, you can be prosecuted regardless of how sincere your belief is that the person is here due to abuse of the system. So in other words, the government does not want you to report people who you think are abusing the system. This does not sound right.