Human Capital

Immigration Uncertainty

Employers, especially in technology, are fearful of changes to the foreign worker visa program.
By: | April 7, 2017 • 5 min read

Uncertainty over President Trump’s travel ban and the potential for changes to the H-1B visa program have many companies contemplating the risks to foreign workers.

New proposals could call for some drastic changes to the visa program at a time when many technology companies say there’s already a talent shortage.

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At the same time, critics of the H-1B visa program, which is used for professionals in specialty fields, say some companies are playing the system to replace American workers with less costly foreign staff.

The debate is ongoing although it has heated up with the new administration’s pronouncements, leaving companies that rely on H-1B workers with both uncertainty and risk.

H-1Bs Essential to Secure Talent

Goldman Sachs estimates there are nearly one million H-1B visa holders working in the U.S., accounting for up to 13 percent of the country’s tech workforce. An H-1B visa is an employment-based, non-immigrant visa category for temporary workers.

Employers must apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the worker’s behalf. Most applicants are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree or equivalent training and must be paid the prevailing wage for the role.

Employers pay filing fees of between $1,570 to  $2,320 per worker for three-year visas that can be extended for up to six years. Of the 85,000 H-1Bs offered annually by the USCIS, 20,000 are reserved for those with a master’s degree or higher.

William Stock, attorney, Klasko Immigration Law Partners

If the USCIS receives more than the number of petitions in the first five business days of the annual filing system, it awards visas on a random lottery system run by computer.

William Stock, an attorney with Klasko Immigration Law Partners in Philadelphia, and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said companies have often used H-1Bs to fill roles in IT infrastructure and software development that they otherwise haven’t been able to fill.

According to Code.org, there are nearly a half-million open computing jobs, yet only 43,000 Americans graduate from college with computer science degrees annually. While many tech jobs can be outsourced overseas, Stock said there’s still a strong need for talent to be onsite in the United States.

Employers Anticipate Change

Companies of all sizes are evaluating the potential for changes in the system, said Matthew Dunn, partner with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel law firm.

While there are some steps President Trump could take on his own, Dunn said, mass changes would likely need to be approved by Congress.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., recently announced plans to introduce a bill that would require all employers seeking H-1B visas to demonstrate “good faith efforts” to find American workers first.

It would also do away with a lottery system and require that employers prioritize the top foreign students who studied in the U.S.

Dunn said it could add pressure for companies since they are already challenged with obtaining the workers they need.

“Right now, there are 85,000 H-1B visas available each year and there are over 200,000 applicants so the chance of getting one is less than 50 percent,” said Dunn.

Other proposals would boost salary thresholds for workers and remove loopholes in the existing H-1B regulations that let some work for less money than U.S. counterparts.

While there is generally bipartisan support for a vetting process to ensure U.S. workers are not being replaced by cheap foreign labor, employers are still concerned that reforms could curtail their access to talent.

Dick Burke, CEO, Envoy

In the meantime, Stock said, these employers are seeking “as many H-1Bs as they can this season” before there are changes to the law, and they’re also ensuring their salaries are competitive.

Companies are also eyeing their vendor relationships to assess their dependence on foreign workers and how changes could impact their ability to deliver products or services.

Dick Burke, CEO at Envoy, a company that helps secure work authorizations across the globe, said many employers are seeking to move foreign workers to “higher ground” by securing more durable authorization.

Mexican and Canadian citizens can be moved to a NAFTA Professional (TN) work visa and others can use an L-1 work visa, a class designed to help multinationals move more people around. Burke said other companies are even trying to help employees obtain a green card as a legal permanent resident.

“They’re really trying to take advantage of the opportunities that the immigration process permits and we’re helping our [clients] do that,” said Burke.

Travel Ban “Unpredictable”

While employers anticipate changes in the H-1B program in the coming year, President Trump’s travel ban executive order has been a more pressing issue.

Dunn said it is difficult to contend with the new “unpredictability of rules that government may require them to follow.”

“It was just sprung on companies and business travel was certainly disrupted and then plans for future travel have been put on hold,” said Dunn.

It was just sprung on companies and business travel was certainly disrupted and then plans for future travel have been put on hold. — Matthew Dunn, partner, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel

Companies have been communicating with their “employees of concern” about adjustments and status of the ban, he said. And while some of these companies have been holding town hall-type meetings to lend support to foreign national workers, others have been taking a “wait and see” approach.

Stock said the ban has led to a great deal of uncertainty in the business community as it was “unprecedented in scope” and not tethered to “any realistic risk/benefit analysis.”

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While employers remain at the mercy of federal regulations, Burke said, many are deciding to “become more vocal” with their representatives.

There’s not only concern about changes to immigration in the United States but about how foreign governments could respond with potential retaliation. The perception that the travel ban, now being fought in the courts, focuses on Muslims may cause retribution in the global economy, Burke said.

India is the biggest provider of H-1B workers, making up nearly 70 percent of the foreign workforce.

“There’s big concern for companies with global operations. There’s a fear that if you’re not going to let our people come in, we’re going to make it very difficult for you to transact business in our country,” said Burke. &

Craig Guillot is a writer and photographer, based in New Orleans. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]