In some cases, H-1B visas are being used to bring in immigrants to do the jobs that American workers are doing. That’s what happened at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
About 250 employees who kept the data systems humming at the theme park were abruptly laid off this year. They were replaced by foreign workers on H-1B visas brought in by HCL America, which is a branch of a global outsourcing company based in India.
There were similar layoffs in 2014 at the Southern California Edison power utility, and in 2013 at Northeast Utilities, then an East Coast power company. At those companies, too, jobs were transferred to workers on H-1B visas.
At Disney and other companies, the American workers who were laid off had to train their replacements or risk losing their severance benefits.
Former Disney employees said many immigrants who arrived on H-1B visas were younger technicians with limited skills, did not speak English fluently and had to be instructed in the basics of the work.
“The first 30 days was all capturing what I did,” said one American in his 40s, who worked at Disney for 10 years. “The next 30 days, they worked side by side with me, and the last 30 days, they took over my job completely.” To receive his severance bonus, he said, “I had to make sure they were doing my job correctly.”
H-1B visas have also been used to bring in temporary foreign workers from outsourcing companies, mainly from India, who study the jobs of Americans and then teach employees of those companies overseas how to do them. The jobs are then moved abroad.
For four weeks this spring, workers from the global outsourcing company Tata Consultancy Services, or TCS, shadowed employees at the headquarters of Toys “R” Us in Wayne, N.J., taking screen shots of computers and detailed notes on how they did their jobs.
By late June, the TCS workers had produced thorough manuals for the jobs of 67 people. They then returned to India to train TCS workers to take over and perform those jobs there. The Toys “R” Us employees in New Jersey, many of whom had been at the company for more than a decade, were laid off.
This fall, the New York Life Insurance Company also laid off workers, and before they left, they were required to teach foreigners on H-1B visas how to do their work, so that the jobs could be moved out of the United States. One accountant said a worker from India made an exact digital “recording” during the day as he performed his job. At the close of business, the recording was sent to India, where workers practiced mimicking the accountant’s tasks.
“It’s all just repeating exactly what we have been doing,” he said.
H-1B visas are supposed to be used to bring in foreign workers with college degrees and “highly specialized knowledge,” mainly in science and technology, according to federal rules. But they are often given to workers who do not have specialized technical knowledge, such as accountants.
At Toys “R” Us this spring, accountants who were scheduled to be laid off were asked to teach employees of an Indian outsourcing company how to do their jobs.
A 36-year-old accountant said the young Indian assigned to shadow her appeared to have no extraordinary knowledge of accounting. His expertise was in observing and mapping what she did.
“He was watching me like a hawk,” she said, remembering the long hours spent in close quarters at her desk under the fluorescent lights of the accounting floor. “It took him a while to learn what I did.”
Congress has set a limit on how many H-1B visas can be awarded each year. Increasingly, global outsourcing companies win the biggest share, using them to bring temporary immigrants, mostly from India, on large contracts to take over work at American businesses.
These companies have become successful at winning visas by learning how to game the H-1B system without breaking the rules, researchers and lawyers said.
The method is simple: flood the visa system with so many applications that many American businesses have little chance.
Each year, applications for the visas are accepted, first come first served, beginning on April 1. Only one application can be submitted for each foreign worker, but a single company can seek an unlimited number of visas. A company with thousands of employees — like the global outsourcing firms — can submit thousands of applications.
By law, if applications quickly exceed the quota, officials turn to a computer-run lottery to select the visa recipients.
Because the outsourcing companies submit so many applications, they have an advantage in winning the visas. Smaller American companies often are the losers.