Laid-off IT workers worry US is losing tech jobs to outsourcing

The university is contracting out their work to an Indian offshoring firm, and a known H-1B visa program user

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Credit: Michael Kan

Sixty-three-year-old Bob Zhang is worried about the future of tech jobs in the U.S. Will the high-paying positions be a thing of the past?  

Zhang thinks it’s already starting to happen. He’s one of 79 IT workers from the University of California, San Francisco, who’ve been laid off. Tuesday was their last day on the job. To replace them, the school is outsourcing some of their work to an Indian firm.

“Usually, they outsource the low-paying jobs,” he said at a gathering outside a school building. “But now they use H-1B (visa) and use foreign workers to replace the high-paying jobs. This trend is dangerous.”

It was a sentiment shared among the laid-off IT workers, who’ve tried to push the school to save their positions, to no avail. Now they fear other publicly-funded universities will take the same approach, and replace U.S. employees with foreign workers.

“It’s everybody’s problem,” said Jeff Tan, another laid-off staffer. “I think there are lasting effects to what happens here.”

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A box of possessions from laid-off UCSF IT worker Kurt Ho on Feb. 28, 2017. 

The layoffs at the school have grabbed headlines, because it’s a rare instance of a publicly funded university outsourcing and offshoring IT work to an Indian firm, allegedly through the use of the federal H-1B visa program.

That program contains loopholes, critics say, that have allowed U.S. companies to bring foreign IT workers to replace jobs once held by U.S. citizens.  

In its defense, the university has said the outsourcing will save it more than $30 million over five years, at a time when the school is struggling to deal with rising costs.

“IT costs on the university’s clinical side nearly tripled between 2011 and 2016,” the university said in a statement on Tuesday. “This growth rate is not sustainable.”

As a result, the university is contracting out some of the work to HCL, an offshoring outsourcing Indian firm well known for its use of H-1B visas. But the school said none of the lost jobs are being replaced with H-1B visa holders.  

The laid-off workers say this isn't the case. Before they left their positions, some trained their incoming replacements from HCL, which they suspect are on H-1B visas and will work at the school. 

“Once you send out the manufacturing jobs, once you send out the service jobs, once you send out the research jobs, what’s left? There’s nothing left,” said Tan, who’s 55 and now looking for a new job.  

Kurt Ho, another laid-off worker, said he was paid an annual salary of about US$110,000, but the new workers replacing his position will fraction that amount.  

“In two years, I could be at another company, and I could be facing the same thing,” he said.

Thirteen of the workers are thinking about suing the school, claiming the way their jobs were eliminated amounted to discrimination. But filing a lawsuit will mean receiving no severance pay. The workers will likely file the lawsuit in 30 to 60 days, a lawyer for them said.

Forty-eight-year-old Bizhan Tabatabaian, another affected worker, said he’ll take some time off before looking for a new job. But he’s concerned it won’t be easy to find employment, partly because of his age.

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Bizhan Tabatabaian (left) leaving his office at UCSF on Feb. 28, 2017. 

“Most of my co-workers have not found work, and that’s a little scary,” he said.

Tabatabaian is also a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. So he’s bothered that a UC school is sending work and money offshore.

“It’s sending a mixed message,” he said. “Our jobs were just sent offshore by an institute of higher-learning, which should be fostering that education, not sending it off-site.”

Although U.S. politicians, including President Donald Trump, are looking at changes to the H-1B visa program, Tabatabaian is doubtful anything will come of it.

“There’s talk about fixing things, and no has done it yet,” he said. “And I’m the proof.”

UCSF said it gave the laid-off workers six months’ notice and has been trying to help them find new employment at other UC schools. Of the 49 permanent employees that were dismissed, 32 have already secured new employment or will retire, the school said.

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