With COVID-19 unleashing waves of layoffs across the U.S., H-1B workers are concerned that they’ll not only lose their jobs, but will have to leave the country within 60 days under current law.
Confronted with that harsh reality, a White House petition is asking that the 60-day “grace period” be extended to 180 days. As of this writing, it has 52,117 signatures, and needs to reach 100,000 in order to spark a response from the White House.
“H1B workers cater to the economy at large, mainly supporting the I.T Industry with high tax contributions,” the petition concludes. “We request the government to temporarily extend the 60-Day grace period to 180 days and protect the H1B workers under these difficult times.”
Critics of the H-1B program are pushing back hard against any such extensions, arguing that it would mean “another 180 days that under-employed U.S. tech workers will have to compete with immigrants in an extremely difficult employment market,” according to a statement that one such opposition group, Progressives for Immigration Reform, made to The Mercury News.
The federal government, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out how it may adjust H-1B policy in light of COVID-19, which, in addition to layoffs and furloughs, is forcing millions of employees to work from home. “We are supporting, across the department, steps for safer working environments in light of the coronavirus, so I would be expecting to see that extended to the terms and conditions enforced with respect to H-1B visas,” one senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official said on a recent conference call with reporters (his name redacted from the public transcript). “But having not dealt with that specific question before, I’d have to defer to USCIS on that.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a FAQ guide for complying with Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) during COVID-19. As you might expect, if an H-1B worker’s tasks and workflow radically change as a result of COVID-19, or if they have to work from home for longer than 30 days, then their sponsoring firm may have to file an amended petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Before COVID-19 hit, USCIS was focusing tighter scrutiny on the H-1B program, asking companies about the type of work that their H-1B workers would do. That spotlight on vendor agreements, projects, and subcontractors helped power a rising number of RFEs, or Requests for Evidence; it also led to a rising number of visa rejections, especially for consulting and business-services firms that have been long accused of abusing the H-1B visa system.
But it remains to be seen how COVID-19 will impact the U.S. government’s long-term approach to immigration. According to new data, there were 275,000 individual entries to the new electronic pre-registration system for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, a 25 percent increase in H-1B filings year-over-year. Clearly, companies are still intent on bringing in workers from overseas.
For more COVID-19 content, check out the COVID-19 Jobs Resource Center.