Experts say Wright State University’s use of a work visa program to bring in low-cost foreign workers for jobs at area private companies typifies abuses that have occurred for years, but legislation to address the issue has gone nowhere.
“Wright State is going to be the kind of poster child for the kinds of abuses that are occurring under the guest worker program,” said Hal Salzman, a senior fellow at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
Wright State is under federal investigation because it held H-1B work visas for foreign workers who didn’t work at the school. The university’s provost and a researcher have been demoted, WSU’s chief general counsel was forced into retirement and another top administrator was fired.
An investigation by this newspaper found many of the work visas WSU obtained were for IT professionals employed at area companies for less money than the companies would have to pay to employ them directly.
David North, senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it appears Wright State essentially was acting as a “body shop,” or a middleman agency that obtains skilled workers, usually from India, and rents them out to other companies for less pay than American workers.
“It’s a pattern we’ve seen before, but I’ve never seen a university do it,” North said. “All sorts of corporations are using the H-1B program to get low-market labor, indentured labor.”
North noted that in addition to Wright State, this region had one of the only public school districts in the country found to be misusing the work visa program. And he noted that a string of local Horizon charter schools have been criticized for bringing in teachers from Turkey on work visas.
“You’ve got a three-layer cake of inappropriate use of that one program in your city, and I’ve seen that nowhere else,” North said.
Salim Ucan, vice president of Concept Schools, Horizon schools’ management company, said it has 59 teachers in Ohio working on visas and the other 93 percent of its teachers in the state are American.
“Our priority is to put the best teacher in that classroom who can meet the needs of our students,” he said. “We first look at the local labor force and fill positions with local labor force, and then if we still have positions we try all other measures to be able to find that teacher and put that teacher in the classroom.”
The work visa program allows companies to bring in workers from other countries on a temporary basis if they can’t find someone to do the job in the native workforce — as long as they agree to pay a fair market wage.
But critics say the program frequently is exploited with little consequence.
Last fall, for example, Walt Disney World laid off 250 employees and replaced them with foreign workers on temporary visas. Some of the laid-off workers were asked to stay on a little longer to train their replacements.
The same thing happened at the utility company Southern California Edison, which cut 500 American workers and hired H-1B visa-holders through a staffing company.
After previous Wright State stories were published, Michael Emmons contacted this newspaper from Florida to share how he was one of roughly 20 Americans laid off more than 10 years ago from contract work at a major global company and ordered to train replacements on work visas from India.
“Once (the foreign workers were) trained, the well-educated American employees were given a small severance and a pink slip,” he said.
Emmons shared his story with a U.S. House subcommittee working on reforms. He said he has yet to see anything materialize.
Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, said a long-lasting partisan stalemate in Congress has halted even otherwise-bipartisan reform efforts.
“I think if you talk to most people, they would say no bill is going to pass for the simple reason is the Democrats … want to hold the H-1B issue hostage so they can get amnesty for the illegal immigrants,” said Matloff, who has written about the extensive use of H-1B visas in the technology field.
In fact, one piece of pending legislation would increase the number of available visas from the current cap of 85,000 per year.
“The cap is not the issue, the issue is the loopholes,” Matloff said, “and the biggest loophole is in prevailing wage, and that’s what allows employers to hire on the cheap and no one is addressing that.”
Officials from the office of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said this week they hope to introduce legislation in the next few weeks similar to a measure he authored but couldn’t get through Congress in 2013.
The 2013 bill — co-sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, both Democrats — would have increased enforcement and penalties for breaking program rules. It also would have modified wage requirements and required that jobs be advertised to American workers before hiring foreigners.
“Somewhere along the line, the H-1B program got side-tracked,” Grassley said in 2013. “The program was never meant to replace qualified American workers, but it was instead intended as a means to fill gaps in highly specialized areas of employment.”
Ron Hira, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, said cases like the Wright State investigation add to lawmakers’ urgency to take on the issue.
“It could be that this Wright State case actually shines a light on some of the problems (with the program),” he said.