Layoff announcements by IT vendors came fast and furious over the past two weeks. But it was Microsoft's that drew the attention of a U.S. senator, who said it was "imperative" that the company give job priority to U.S. citizens over foreigners with H-1B visas.
"Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect ... American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times," Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in a letter to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on Jan. 22.
Grassley, a vocal critic of the H-1B program, could have sent the letter to any of the vendors laying off employees -- or to corporations with H-1B workers on their IT staffs. He likely singled out Microsoft because its chairman, Bill Gates, has called for an increase in the annual cap on visas during congressional hearings.
Microsoft, which plans to cut up to 5,000 employees over the next 18 months, said last week that a "significant number" of the first 1,400 people being let go are foreign workers who are in the United States on visas.
The software vendor wouldn't be more specific, though. And despite Grassley's demands, there are no federal laws that require companies to lay off H-1B holders before U.S. workers.
"In fact, the law is very well designed to say that you have to treat H-1Bs the same as U.S. citizens in all regards," said David Kussin, an immigration attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in New York.
Even Grassley appeared to acknowledge that point in his letter to Ballmer, when he wrote about Microsoft's "moral obligation." He didn't describe protecting U.S. workers as a legal requirement.
Microsoft won't disclose the number of H-1B workers on its payroll, and it's hard to get a complete picture of any company's visa use from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But the software vendor is considered to be one of the leading H-1B employers. For instance, according to USCIS data, Microsoft received approval for a total of nearly 2,300 visas for the federal government's 2006 and 2007 fiscal years.
In the statement that Microsoft released in response to Grassley's letter, the company noted that there is a "human impact" for all workers who are laid off, including H-1B holders.
"For many of the employees here on a visa, being laid off means that they have to leave the country on very short notice, in many cases uprooting families and children," Microsoft said.
Indeed, visa holders whose jobs are eliminated face some difficult decisions. Kussin said that as soon as H-1B workers lose their jobs, they technically "are no longer eligible to be in the United States."