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Sweeping tech layoffs are hitting immigrant workers hard

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And I'm Rachel Martin. About 50,000 tech workers lost their jobs last month as Meta, Amazon, Twitter and others laid off parts of their workforce. Losing a job is always devastating. But for many immigrant workers, their ability to stay in the U.S. is now on a pretty brutal ticking tock. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reports.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Back in March of 2020, Aditya Tayade (ph) was working at a tech company near Boston. Things were going well. He'd just gotten a promotion. But COVID and lockdown hit his employer hard. The office was closed down. The company called a virtual all-staff meeting. And Tayade had a bad feeling. Almost immediately, the CEO confirmed his worst fears.

ADITYA TAYADE: Saying that they are taking a decision to let people go. And the people who are being let go will get an email within the next hour.

VANEK SMITH: Tayade was in his living room, glued to his computer, refreshing his email again and again. And then, all of a sudden, there it was, the email.

TAYADE: I don't remember the subject line. But it just started that, if you are getting this email, that means you're one of the thousand employees who are being let go. And these are the next steps you need to take.

VANEK SMITH: What did you do when you read that?

TAYADE: I had a very shaky voice when I told this to my wife. I then went to the bathroom, and I cried.

VANEK SMITH: Tayade and his wife are from India. They had been in the U.S. for five years. Their life was here. But Tayade was in the U.S. on an H-1B or skilled worker visa. Tech companies use these visas a lot to find workers they say they cannot find in the U.S. The H-1B visa ties a worker to a particular job. And if they lose that job, a countdown clock starts. Tayade got his emotions together and immediately started making a plan.

TAYADE: Let me take out this emotion and then think of it strategically. Like, this is happening, so I have two months.

VANEK SMITH: Two months. People who lose their job on an H-1B visa have 60 days to lock down a new job before they have to leave the country. Right now, thousands of H-1B visa holders are facing this same ticking clock. Joshua Browder is the CEO of DoNotPay, an AI-based legal services startup. He says it's always been such a struggle to find talent. He's had to pay recruiters to find people. So after he heard the news about Meta's thousands of layoffs, he sent out a quick note on Twitter.

JOSHUA BROWDER: If you have recently been laid off and hold an H-1B visa, we would love to chat with you at DoNotPay. Twenty-five percent of our team are not U.S. citizens. And we can move quickly.

VANEK SMITH: Browder thought, maybe I'll get a few really top people who've been laid off, kind of a win-win.

BROWDER: We've had hundreds of people reach out. Some of the best designers, engineers with amazing portfolios reached out. And it's very surprising that they were laid off.

VANEK SMITH: Browder is an immigrant himself and says H-1B workers are in a really tough spot. There is a flood of tech workers on the market right now and a lot of hiring freezes. Also, many places will hire a U.S. citizen over an H-1B worker. It's cheaper, less paperwork. Aditya Tayade was up against this himself when he was laid off back in 2020. He started applying to every possible job, obsessing over every question in every interview.

TAYADE: There was a lot of overthinking, I think, at that point because I was like, I need to answer all the questions correctly. What if I answer one question incorrectly and that is what decides my future in the States?

VANEK SMITH: Tayade was applying around the clock. Sometimes he would do five interviews in one day. First round, second round - it was a blur until one day, he got a job offer on email.

What - how did you feel when you saw that email?

TAYADE: (Laughter) I think I was bursting tears of laughter. Like, one email changed my life. Then this other one has changed my trajectory again.

VANEK SMITH: Tayade got the job with just 15 days to spare. Now he's trying to help H-1B holders who are in the same situation he was in two years ago, trying desperately to find a job with the clock ticking.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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