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H1B: Waking up from the American dream
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February 20, 2009
Since early December 2008, Sreehari Gopalakrishnan has applied to 176 firms, and the rate of call back has steadily declined.

"Earlier, it used to be from 20 to 30 places but now it is less than 10 per cent", says Gopalakrishnan, an analyst with a firm in Connecticut that does relocation management. With the current economic downturn and the housing slump, his company has several houses in its inventory worth millions of dollars.

His current firm hired him over three years ago on an H1B visa. When the visa expired in December 2008, the company gave him an extension for two months. "They knew me and liked my work, so they gave me the extra time," said Gopalakrishnan. However, that extension expires at the end of February.

His firm cannot ask for another extension. It has filed for a Green Card in his name, but that application is still in its final stages of processing. The company has over 200 people working on H1Bs, he says, of whom many have been asked to leave, while others await with anxiety the day their employment will be terminated.

Gopalakrishnan has been sending out job applications at a frenetic pace, but responses are increasingly few and far between, he says. Many of the companies that do respond are eliminated because of his visa scenario. "No one wants to go that extra mile of sponsoring you," he says, adding that companies prefer workers who have residency. In some cases, he says, he reached the last round of interviews, but then lost out because of his visa situation.

As the problem mounts, workers in US companies have begun seeking jobs in Canada, various European countries and also in Asian countries like Hong Kong. "They are not hit as bad," Gopalakrishnan says. "Plus, the grass is always greener on the other side."

For Varun Sharma, an associate with Merrill Lynch on an H1B visa, the next few weeks will be crucial. As on date, his position with Bank of America seems secure -- but that can change overnight, he says. Against the background of talk that companies caught up in the financial crunch will first lay off guest workers, tensions have been mounting.

"When such talk begins, you realize that this is not your country; that you can get kicked out at any time," Sharma says. "In this situation, there is considerable anxiety, fuelled by rumours."

Sharma believes that his visa will automatically transfer from Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, but even so he has started taking measures to guard against potential problems. "I was never extravagant, but now I am even more careful," says Sharma, discussing the ways he has been cutting down on spending. "I don't randomly spend $100 like I used to." Friends who took cabs to work now take the subway, he says. "It is a tough time. Everybody has to cut down."

Friends who have been laid off have begun seeking jobs in India. "People are not talking about it clearly, but they are considering options back home even if the pay is less," he says. Others are looking for opportunities in small hedge funds, and are willing to work for really low pay.

Sharma believes he is safe, but has been keeping his eyes open for opportunities. He visited the London office of Merrill Lynch to see how operations there are doing. "I am obviously talking to people, but not as seriously," says Sharma, arguing that he is reluctant to jump ship because those who survive the recession will likely emerge stronger.

"It is only a matter of time," he believes. "The recovery will not be as fast as we wish, but the economy will recover." He believes that people from India who seek work visas need to understand that the US is not the dreamland people perceive it to be; when you get here, he says, you are forced to tone down your expectations. "When I came here, I wanted to buy a car in my second year and a home in my fourth year, but all that has to change," said Sharma.

The situation is far more critical for those who have lost their jobs, and have a deadline to vacate the country. Vivek Joshi never imagined that on February 6, he would come in to work and realize that he no longer had the job he has been doing for two years, in the Minneapolis office of a consulting firm.

Joshi worked with the company's health and financial services, setting up business processes. On that day, he was asked to leave, without any notice. "They have provided me a severance package which they are going to provide as a lump sum amount," said Joshi. He now has 30 days to look for another job so that he can transfer his H1B and remain in the US -- and he cannot afford to be picky. Any firm that will transfer his visa, and give him employment commensurate with his qualifications and experience, will do, he says.

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