Rajkamal Rao

Covid-19 hurts H-1Bs

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on March 19, 2020

Temporary employees, fall guys in a recession

As the world slowly shuts down, students and H-1Bs bound for, or already in, the US are likely to face unimaginable hardships in the coming weeks.

The most immediate impact is from American travel bans. The US now bars any foreigner who has been to China, Japan, South Korea, the UK, Ireland, and any of the 27 Schengen countries in the last 14 days. Any Indian student or H-1B employee stuck in one of these countries will have to return to India, which has effectively banned all international travel inward through April 15.

Effective March 16, American consulate offices in India are providing only essential services to US citizens. All currently scheduled non-immigrant visa appointments stay cancelled. There are only so many calendar days available between now and late July when most international students need to obtain their student visas before Fall classes start. Indefinite closure of visa offices will limit the number of appointments and the number of visas issued — unless consular offices significantly increase visa issuance capacities when things return to normal. And at the rate things are going, no one knows when that would be.

The American stock market has lost nearly 30 per cent of its value since its peak in mid-February. A look at the S&P stock index shows that the Energy, Transportation, Finance and Banking, and Technology sectors are the hardest hit, companies which gainfully employ tens of thousands of Indians. A recession now appears unavoidable and this means that many companies are likely to lay off international students on practical training and H-1B visas first because these temporary employees are easiest to let go.

Impacted employees have to quickly find alternative, salary-earning positions in their fields with a different employer in a tough economy, generally within 60 days, or change to another lawful status, such as enrolling as a full-time student to pursue another degree. Being in the US unlawfully is risky and there are severe legal consequences once the clock crosses 180 days, when violators enter a technical status called “unlawful presence.”

In a minor reprieve for students, a US district court on February 6 issued a nationwide injunction forbidding the Trump administration from enforcing stricter unlawful presence rules that the government had announced in August 2018 — but the relief generally applies only to minor violations, not extending stays indefinitely after employment ends.

International students about to graduate from US universities in May will find it doubly difficult to find first-time employment when companies are imposing hiring freezes, and may be forced to return home. US law provides a 60-day grace period after graduation to convert to an F-1 practical training visa, but the much sought-after Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which is a passport to worry-free temporary work status nationwide is contingent upon having a legitimate offer of employment.

For H-1B employees, there are additional headaches. Many companies have required employees to work from home, but US law does not automatically allow H-1B visa holders to do so. If the home is not within an ordinary “commuting distance” from the workplace, and the telecommuting arrangement extends beyond ten business days, an employee may have violated their status. The employer may have to refile the employee’s H-1B application tailored to the employee’s home location.

The writer is Managing Director,Rao Advisors LLC, Bedford, Texas

Published on March 19, 2020

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