Photo: Ryan Ketterman
Programmers/analysts Vishwa Reddy (left) and Sravan Dandari work at a Jacksonville IT company under the H-1B work visa program.
Importing workers to Florida
John Watson is president and chief technology officer of a small, Jacksonville-based IT consulting and software development firm. He employs about 16 computer IT consultants who specialize in design and development, project management, quality assurance and database administration. Salaries start at about $65,000 and climb upward of $100,000 a year.
Most of his employees aren’t American citizens. Most come from India. Some have permanent resident status (“green cards”), while others come here as guest workers on permits called H-1B visas. Watson says he advertises his openings on popular employment websites such as Dice, ComputerJobs and Monster.com but rarely finds qualified candidates from the U.S. “I haven’t had an American even sniff a job ad that I’ve run.
They’re not out there,” he says.
According to research by Microsoft, the average number of computer science graduates each year (including bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D.s) is around 60,000. That’s just about half of the 122,300 job openings in computing that the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts.
“There are just not enough people going into all the different levels of education” in the socalled STEM fields, says Pamela Nabors, president and CEO of CareerSource Central Florida, a nonprofit agency that provides recruitment and employment services to job seekers and businesses in the Orlando area.
Meanwhile, the demand for IT professionals is growing far beyond what traditional tech employers have required, she says. “Regardless of what you do — health care or education or entertainment and hospitality — everything has the elements of information technology built into it.”
And so each year, Watson and hundreds of other Florida employers — many in the IT and health care industry — turn to the federal H-1B program, established by Congress in 1990 to allow U.S. firms to hire foreign workers with “specialty skills” that are in short supply Domestically, including scientists, engineers, computer programmers and physical therapists.
Florida companies have been granted more than 22,500 H-1B visa requests since 2011, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services data. The visas are issued for up to three years and can be extended to six years.
Critics — including labor unions, professional associations and antiimmigration activists — charge that claims of a STEM-worker shortage are overblown. Many companies, they say, use the visa program to import cheap replacements for American workers.
A particular source of anger for some is firms that import foreigners to facilitate the overseas outsourcing of jobs. In 2008, for example, Nielsen, the television ratings firm based near Tampa, brought in a group of Indian workers on H-1B visas through Tata Consultancy Services. Nielsen had 110 American staffers train the Indian workers, who went back home. Nielsen then laid off the Americans.
Outsourcing firms like Tata Consultancy Services, in fact, have dominated the H-1B arena nationally. According to the Boston Globe, 20% of the H-1B petitions approved last year went to four such firms: Cognizant, Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro.
“These are companies that exist for the sole purpose of replacing American workers with lower cost foreign workers, which is legal, of course, (but) that is not the intent of the program,” complains Russ Harrison, director of government relations for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA.
While the H-1B program requires employers to pay their foreign workers the “prevailing wage” for similar jobs in that geographic area, Harrison says some companies use the H-1B program to hire more qualified employees at cheaper rates. “For example, a company can say, ‘This job requires a bachelor’s degree and no experience,’ and then hire someone with a Ph.D. and 20 years’ experience on an H-1B and pay them the bachelor’s wages,” Harrison says. Companies also don’t feel the same pressure to provide raises to foreign workers, he adds.
Many Florida firms, however, dismiss the notion that using H-1B workers is a way to hold down costs. They say the process of obtaining H-1Bs has become so expensive, slow, burdensome and unpredictable that they wouldn’t use the program if they didn’t have to.
Companies have to submit a 35-page application for a specific “non-immigrant worker” to the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services by as close as they can to April 1, when the window to file the visa petitions opens. The window closes when the H-1B visas run out — which is generally within the first week.
The H-1B applications aren’t cheap, loaded with various costs that include a $325 filing fee, a $500 fraud prevention/detection fee; an employer sponsorship fee ranging from $750 to $1,500 and a $1,225 “premium processing” fee, which speeds up adjudication to within 15 calendar days.
Furthermore, companies that have more than 50 employees in the U.S. and employ at least 50% of their workers on H1 or L1 status (another work visa that allows multinational companies to shift critical personnel to the U.S. temporarily) are required to pay an additional $2,000 per employee. On top of those government-imposed charges are legal fees that can range from $500 to $2,000 per employee, depending on the attorney. Legal costs can run even higher if the federal government asks for additional documentation.
“They’ve made it very expensive. It used to be $125 in 1998,” says Sreedhar Veeramachaneni, CEO of System Soft Technologies, a software development and IT services provider in Tampa.
In addition, the government has arbitrarily capped the number of H-1Bs it issues to U.S. companies each year at 85,000, including 20,000 visas reserved for advanced degree graduates. Demand regularly exceeds supply: This April, the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received approximately 172,500 filings for the 85,000 slots.
That, say employers, turns the process into a crapshoot. When the demand for H-1Bs exceeds the supply, as it has for the past several years, the USCIS conducts a computerized lottery to select cases for processing.
Watson says he lost two potential employees last year because their applications didn’t get picked. The filing fees he paid to submit the application went up in smoke too. “They were on time — signed, sealed and delivered — and I was then told three to four weeks later, ‘You didn’t make the lottery.’ I spent $4,200 to $4,400 on each and lost both of them.”
Another hurdle is increased scrutiny of H-1B applicants by the USCIS and the U.S. State Department. The USCIS frequently asks H-1B applicants for additional information related to their pending applications. The “requests for evidence” often require employers to prove, among other things, that the occupation they are listing is a Professional occupation; that the company normally requires such a position; that the job duties are professional in nature; that the person has the ability to fulfill the work; that there’s sufficient work for the employee to do. “It’s gotten very difficult,” says Ashwin Sharma, a Jacksonville attorney who specializes in immigration issues and helps companies apply for H-1B visas.
The USCIS has also been taking a harder look at whether the individual’s degree fits with the professional occupation’s needs — a requirement that Sharma says can be problematic. An accounting firm, for instance, might find it acceptable to hire a chemistry major who is brilliant in math and has two years’ work experience in accounting. But that resume might not line up with what the USCIS deems as acceptable, and the agency may deny the application.
Once the Department of Home Land Security approves an H-1B petition, the Department of State must then review it — a process fraught with uncertainty. Immigration attorneys contacted by Florida Trend say that the U.S. consulates in India, Canada and other locations have become much more aggressive in reviewing H-1B packages in recent years.
Denials aren’t uncommon. And Sharma says he also knows of several cases in which employees who have been working in the U.S. on H-1B visas and then return to their home country for a short visit have had their visas revoked and were denied re-entry in to the U.S.
The process has become so cumbersome that Veeramachaneni says his company stopped pursuing H- 1Bs for employees outside the country four years ago. Today, he says, his company only sponsors H-1B for individuals who are already in the U.S. on a student visa and have at least one year of work experience in the U.S.
Watson says he doesn’t under Stand why the U.S. makes it so hard to bring over highly educated, skilled workers who work hard, pay taxes and contribute to the economy. He hopes that Congress will eventually decide to toss the cap on H-1Bs.
“We’ve got 12 million illegal aliens in our country, but I’ll guarantee you we don’t have even one illegal IT alien in this country,” Watson laments. “There’s no way you could hire them. We go through just an unbelievable maze of government and homeland security regulations, immigration stuff that will blow your mind.”
The H-1B process of importing a worker to fill a needed job specialty has become so cumbersome that many employers look for ways around it.
Avant Healthcare CEO Shari Sandifer says her company has brought over more than 1,000 health care professionals from 50 countries over the past eight years. While some of those employees came over on H-1Bs, Sandifer says the cap makes it hard to predict whether the company will be able to fill its staffing needs.
Sandifer says the company also uses immigrant visas, or green cards, whenever possible. Some workers, she says, are eligible for employment-based visas such as the EB-2, which are available to professionals holding advanced degrees, or EB-3s, which are reserved for “skilled workers and professionals,” but backlogs can mean long waits depending on the country of origin.
Workers from India face a 10-year wait to get an EB-2, and Chinese nationals are looking at about a four-year wait time. EB-3 wait times, meanwhile, can range from two years for people from China and Mexico to seven years for someone from the Philippines, which is a prime exporter of health care workers.
Some employers who once relied on H-1Bs are turning to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) to hire foreign workers. The temporary employment program allows students who have been studying in the U.S. on an F1 visa to remain in the U.S. for another 12 to 29 months to get practical training in their chosen field of studies.
John Watson, president and chief technology officer of a Jacksonville IT consulting and software development firm, says the program isn’t a panacea. “The problem is, they don’t have the experience you’re looking for. When you do hire the OTP, you have to start them in a more junior position, which is not what the company employing your services wants. They want people with more experience.”
Certain types of employers are exempt from the H-1B caps and may file a petition at any time. Exempt employers include institutions of higher education, non-profits affiliated with institutions of higher education (such as hospitals and research facilities), non-profit research organizations and governmental Research organizations. At one time, Avant Healthcare partnered with a non-profit research organization, the Threshold Center for Autism in Winter Park, to assist in sponsoring capexempt H-1Bs for physical and occupational therapists from countries like the Philippines. Sandifer says the arrangement ended because the Threshold Center no longer conducts research and therefore does not qualify for the exemption.
The iTrace Foundation, a nonprofit in Plantation that co-hosts the annual Fort Lauderdale Turkey Trot & Paddle, is also in the visa business, sponsoring H-1B visas for dozens of physical therapists seeking work in the United States. Between 2011 and 2013, the non-profit — which could potentially qualify for capexempt H-1Bs — was granted 38 H-1Bs, according to USCIS records. Officials with the iTrace Foundation, which was registered as a Florida not-for-profit corporation in 2009 by Cincinnati-based immigration lawyer Christopher Musillo, refused to speak about the foundation’s H-1B activities — but public records show that the group has ties to MedPro Healthcare Staffing in Sunrise, one of the largest recruiters of therapists and nurses from outside the U.S. According to its IRS filings, iTrace Foundation reported receiving $408,959 in “placement revenue” in 2011 and more than $1.6 million in “placement revenue” in 2012.
H-1B Employers in Florida
While most workers who come to Florida on H-1B visas work in IT-related occupations, employers are also importing workers to fill accounting and actuarial auditing positions. In fact, PricewaterhouseCoopers was the biggest user of H-1Bs in Florida last year. The accounting firm used H-1Bs to fill positions for accountants, auditors, management analysts as well as computer systems analysts and other IT professionals, according to Department of Labor records.
Health care providers also hire H-1B visa workers, including Florida Hospital and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Saji John, a human resources manager for Florida Hospital System, says the hospital’s “first preference” is to hire Americans, but it has to recruit internationally because of a shortage of critical care nurses, IT professionals, occupational therapists, Physical therapists and speech language pathologists.
John says Florida Hospital’s international recruiting has worked out well and that close to 90% of all the international staff the hospital has hired since 2004 are still on board with the non-profit system.
Health care staffing companies such as Avant Healthcare in Casselberry and MedPro in Sunrise also rely on the H-1B program to import occupational therapists and physical therapists to serve their clients around the country.
Facing a teacher shortage in 2001, the Palm Beach County school district began recruiting teachers from the Philippines to teach math and science, importing the instructors through the H-1B program. A few years later, the school board began bringing in Spanish teachers from Spain.
District spokesman Owen Torres says the school board stopped hiring workers under H-1B two years ago because there was no longer a shortage. The county has honored its commitment to the teachers it originally brought over, he says, by applying for renewal of their visas. The school system currently has 42 H-1B teachers on staff, Torres says.
Broward, Duval, Leon, Gadsden, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hendry counties have also recruited teachers under the H-1B program, according to records with the Department of Labor.
The typical worker who comes to America on an H-1B visa is young, well-educated, works in the IT field and is from India.
- $70,000 — Median salary for an H-1B worker
- 72% are between ages of 25 and 34\
- 61% work in computer-related occupations
- 64% are from India, 7.6% China, 3% Canada, 2% Philippines, 1.7% South Korea,
1.3% U.K., 1.2% Mexico
- 46% have a bachelor’s degree
- 41% have a master’s degree
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Characteristics of H1B Specialty Occupation Workers: Fiscal Year 2012 Annual Report to Congress
A Question of Talent
Sarath Kuravi, COO of iCube CSI in Jacksonville, says he’d prefer to hire locally in Jacksonville but can’t always find the skilled workers his IT solutions company needs. “We have to employ H-1B to attract talent, but it is, of course, not an easy process. It is a little bit cumbersome for us.”
Among the most difficult aspects of the H-1B program are the annual caps and the length of time it can take to bring someone over on an H-1B. Kuravi says it can take anywhere from eight months to a year to bring a worker to the U.S. on an H-1B. “Sometimes we lose business because we don’t have the right people. Even if we do find the right talent (abroad), sometimes we cannot bring them here because the quota is filled,” he says.