Program to Import “Needed” Tech Workers Displaces 400 Laid-Off SoCal Edison Workers

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Southern California Edison (SCE) is reportedly laying off 400 tech employees and accepting voluntary separation from 100 others, and replacing them with cheaper temporary foreign workers under the 1990 federal H-1B visa program.

U-T San Diego quoted from an Edison release that explained the change “will lead to enhancements that deliver faster and more efficient tools and applications for services that customers rely on.” How will hiring different workers enhance Edison’s service? The answer is, apparently, cheaper labor.

“This can best be achieved by continuing to be mindful of SCE’s responsibility to spend customers’ money prudently,” Edison said.

Hopefully, the improvement gained from hiring lower-paid workers will balance out the loss of experienced employees. But it’s not like the new workers will be totally devoid of institutional knowledge.

“They are bringing in people with a couple of years' experience to replace us and then we have to train them,” one IT worker told Computerworld. That’s called “knowledge transfer,” a term likely to bandied about in the halls of Congress as it considers bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate three weeks ago to expand the H-1B program.

H-1B allows businesses to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations that “require theoretical or practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge.” The bill, co-sponsored by three Democrats and three Republicans, would increase the number of H-1B workers admitted from 65,000 to 115,000 annually and maintain an extra 20,000 spots for those with advanced degrees.

That cap is down from the 300,000 sought by the tech industry in an earlier incarnation of the bill, which is considered a compromise of the unlimited cap many tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook favor. They argue that there has been a severe shortage of tech workers in the country, which is holding back productivity and stifling development of future entrepreneurs.

Critics on the left and right include labor advocates and conservatives. They deny there is a shortage of graduates coming out of college with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills demanded by tech companies. And if there were, signaling STEM students that their jobs will be devalued with cheap foreign labor doesn’t seem like it would spur many to pursue degrees in those fields. Shouldn’t the free-market be allowed to push wages higher to attract more people to enter the fields?

H-1Bs, they argue, are just a ploy to drive wages down. The Economic Policy Institute calculated in 2013 that more than 80% of H-1B visa holders are hired at wages below those paid to American workers in comparable positions.

Conservative Congressman Darrell Issa (R-California), expressing “deep dismay,” posted on his website: “Based on the information currently available, this appears to be an example of precisely what the H-1B visa is not intended to be: a program to simply replace American workers en masse with cheap labor from overseas.”

Although the true intentions of the H-1B’s original champions may be hard to discern, the U.S. Department of Labor clearly states: “The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires that the hiring of a foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers comparably employed.”

Part of the application for process requires signing off on a form that states: “The employer attests that H-1B, H-1B1 or E-3 foreign workers in the named occupation will not adversely affect the working conditions of workers similarly employed.” Perhaps, once a worker is unemployed he no longer has a working condition to be adversely affected.

The transition at Edison began last August and is expected to be completed next month.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Southern California Edison IT Workers “Beyond Furious” over H-1B Replacements (by Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld)

Tech Demands More H-1B Visas as Critics Cry Foul (by Matthew DeLuca, NBC News)

Issa: Edison's Use of Visa Program “Deeply Disturbing” (by Katherine P. Harvey, U-T San Diego)

How H-1B Visas Are Screwing Tech Workers (by Josh Harkinson, Mother Jones)

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