By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
For many H-1B visa holders working in the United States, it can be nerve-wracking and unpredictable. Some people have had to navigate unexpected layoffs from companies, as well as the complicated and lengthy process of visa applications. For an already stressful situation for visa holders, some companies have made things worse by laying off people right before the holidays—a time of holiday cheer and merriment for many.
Arguably, there is no good time to lay off people, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, historical data shows December often ranks as the second-highest month for layoffs and discharges with January topping the list.
According to layoffs.fyi, 979 tech companies including Meta and Amazon have laid off over 151,000 employees in 2022.
Technical program manager Dimple Shah was one of the 11,000 employees that were laid off from Meta in early November. After working there for three years, her initial reaction was actually one of gratitude. She was grateful for the opportunity to witness first hand what a magical place Meta is, she shared in a LinkedIn post.
What hurt the most for Shah was leaving behind a culture that nurtured a sense of community, confidence, and care—while still being fearlessly ambitious and challenging.
While she has 60 days to find a new job, Shah already has calls set up with recruiters and hiring managers to explore openings when the market opens up in the new year. In addition, she’s using this time to learn about different companies and ecosystems that she’s been curious about but hadn’t been able to prioritize before.
“This has been a great learning experience on so many levels! I couldn’t be more thankful for the overwhelming support from not only my closest contacts but also from the community at large,” Shah said.
When asked how the community can help people like her in this situation, Shah said that helping make direct connections to folks who have open roles or may be hiring in the near future go a long way to get in front of the decision-makers. Even an informational or exploratory calls can open up opportunities that otherwise weren’t on the radar.
Current software engineer at Google and H-1B visa holder, Ajay Sharma*, had gone through layoffs in 2020 while he was working at Cisco.
Not only did Sharma have to adjust from working at a physical office to working remotely, he was still on his F-1 student visa though he applied for the H-1B visa every year, but he didn’t get picked.
As COVID continued, he started hearing more news regarding layoffs at tech companies.
“There was a big layoff in the whole organization and I had to join a call with my manager and they let me know. It was sort of a shock, but it became obvious that the newer folks were laid off,” he said.
Despite his role being eliminated, Cisco gave him a few options and he chose a voluntary layoff which gave him a larger severance package, but he had to stop working earlier. The other option was to work until January but take a smaller severance package.
He then went onto work at Amazon and now, Google, where he’s finding better work-life balance. Sharma started at Google in May of this year.
At a recent all-hands meeting, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that it’s tough to predict the future when asked about the possibility of layoffs.
Sharma said that it’s a risky situation similar to when he was at Cisco being one of the newer members on his team, but it’s out of his control and that is one of the struggles of being on an H-1B visa. He’s aware of the possibility and is trying to prepare in case he gets laid off again.
‘Immigration is more of an art than a science’
Feiya Go, senior immigration attorney at World One Law Group, works with companies and individual employees that work in various sectors including tech and finance/accounting.
Larger tech companies like Amazon or Microsoft usually have in-house counsel to provide advice to their employees, however, World One Law Group often provides consultation to those employees who would like secondary opinions or further support.
Go has clients who have been laid off and they’re asking questions like: What’s my backup plan? What are the best/worst-case scenarios?
Because there’s a difference between legal status and work authorization, people want to know if they can work and legally stay in the U.S. or whether they can legally stay here until they find another job, or what other options they have.
For H-1B visa holders, they have a 60-day grace period to find another employer to sponsor them.
If you get a job offer and the new company is willing to petition, it’s not a complicated process and not risky if the new job title is the same. The timing is the challenge because it takes about two weeks to file an application.
If you’re already on the visa, you don’t need to enter the lottery again. They just need to change the employer application.
“In this situation, as long as someone isn’t leaving the country, a new company that’s reputable can provide you with something in your field. The job requires a bachelor’s degree, you’re able to file the petition, you can start work as soon as you file the petition and you don’t need to wait for it to be approved,” Go explained.
Even if someone overstays their visa, they’re not on the top of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s list. There’s a possibility of deportation, but Go has never seen it happen to her clients.
“We can’t advise someone to overstay but we can tell them the consequences and they can make their own decision. Time becomes a big factor so it’s best to talk to legal counsel early on,” she added.
“Immigration is more of an art than a science,” Go said.
Go said sometimes people don’t know what or who to ask for advice.
“A lot of times there are a lot of options, but they just need to talk to an attorney early on,” she added.
Some people have only talked to their HR or legal department at their company, and haven’t sought external counsel. However, Go said that in-house counsel are working in the best interests of the company, but an external firm could help with one’s individual immigration goals with their best interests in mind.
Most legal firms will do a consultation for a few hundred dollars for a 60-90 minute session where they will really dive deep into one’s immigration situation to provide guidance.
“For us, we can explore all the avenues to help their person for their long-term goals,” Go said.
In the tech sector, companies are generally well-versed in managing H-1B visas and are more lenient about remote interviewing so it’s possible for someone to leave the U.S. and then return after securing a new job.
Go recommends H-1B visa holders who are on a tight timeline to communicate urgency with recruiters when possible to push up interviews. And on the flip side, it would be helpful to lead with empathy and understanding as folks try to accelerate their job search process.
‘Packing up and leaving work on the same day’
Bhargavi Subramanya, project manager in the construction industry, has had her share of visa complications.
She was on an F-1 visa but didn’t get picked for the H-1B visa despite trying all three years. She decided to pursue a second master’s degree to extend her employment period and during that time, her then-boyfriend got his H-1B visa on his third attempt.
When Subramanya and her husband got married last May, she decided to convert her F-1 visa to a dependent H-4 visa which was a fairly simple process. However, dependents of H-1B visa holders cannot work unless they have started the green card application process, which is a 1.5 year process.
Her husband’s green card application was processed in May and then she applied for the H-4 visa along with the work permit that comes with it. Because she applied in June, both the visa and work permit should’ve been approved together so there’s no gap in employment, but only the H-4 visa was approved in mid-October. That immediately canceled her F-1 visa and she didn’t have a work permit at the time so it made her ineligible to work.
It wasn’t easy for Subramanya to find this information online because it’s such a gray area. She got in touch with a lawyer and they told her that she should’ve already quit. That was when she had to tell her employer she had to leave immediately the same day with no notice.
“It was a big shock that I wasn’t expecting. It’s not a nice feeling to pack up and leave the same day from work. It was awkward and embarrassing because I had to tell everybody. I was uncertain if there would still be a job waiting for me and uncertain of how many months of unemployment I’d be facing. It was a period of uncertainty and anxiousness,” Subramanya said.
As she was waiting for her approved work permit, she became obsessed with refreshing the page that showed her status, and it became her routine.
Luckily, she got her work permit approved in mid-December and has already secured a new opportunity to begin at the start of the year.
“So many processes that could’ve been so simple, but it’s so bad and unnecessarily difficult,” she said.
‘Loss of employment, loss of home’
Atal Agarwal is a product manager based in San Francisco. He was laid off on November 1 after working for a health insurance company for two years. He was in the middle of a run when he received a call from his former manager and an HR representative.
“I worked in healthcare for five years and served the old people in this country, and now as this recession hits, they’re like, ‘Go back to your home country’—this is disrespectful to me,” he shared.
Agarwal said that he didn’t have a dream to live in the U.S. He was born in a small city, Rampur, Uttar Pradesh in India and came to the U.S. to get an education and try his own startup. When it didn’t work out, he took a job to learn from others, but this layoff experience has him feeling disappointed.
“It’s not only a loss of employment, but it’s a loss of my home, it’s inhumane in a way,” he said of the layoff.
However, Agarwal turned his bad experience into a positive one. He created and posted a video of his reaction online and that sparked a lot of engagement and support.
He started following his dreams after that. He completed a full Ironman competition only 10 days after he registered for the race. Also, Agarwal realized that he wanted to write his own book about his life while improving his writing skills. He started blogging more and creating his own content, and even launched a podcast with a friend.
Luckily for Agarwal, he found a new company willing to sponsor him within a month of the layoff. He signed an offer for a product management role and is working with his lawyers to determine his start date after the H-1B visa transfer process, which takes approximately two weeks.
One big takeaway from his experience has been that it may not be a good idea to consider the U.S. as a future home in the long-run. Agarwal feels that this country can throw you away in a minute and there are a lot of people facing similar challenges.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Name has been changed to maintain anonymity.