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1/26/2009
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Senator Quizzes Microsoft On Layoffs

Microsoft's plans to lay off 5,000 workers have ruffled the feathers of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a long-time critic of the U.S. H-1B visa program. Microsoft, a top 10 employer of H-1B visa holders, has been among the most vocal tech companies over the last several years urging Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas. Now Grassley is urging Microsoft to furlough those temporary foreign workers first before handing out pink slips to Americans and permanent U.S. residents.

Microsoft's plans to lay off 5,000 workers have ruffled the feathers of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a long-time critic of the U.S. H-1B visa program. Microsoft, a top 10 employer of H-1B visa holders, has been among the most vocal tech companies over the last several years urging Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas. Now Grassley is urging Microsoft to furlough those temporary foreign workers first before handing out pink slips to Americans and permanent U.S. residents.In a letter sent to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer late last week, Grassley wrote:

"I am concerned that Microsoft will be retaining foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American employees when it implements its layoff plan. As you know, I want to make sure employers recruit qualified American workers first before hiring foreign guest workers."

The letter continues:

"Last year, Microsoft was here on Capitol Hill advocating for more H-1B visas. The purpose of the H-1B visa program is to assist companies in their employment needs where there is not a sufficient American workforce to meet their technology expertise requirements. However, H-1B and other work visa programs were never intended to replace qualified American workers.

Certainly, these work visa programs were never intended to allow a company to retain foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American workers when that company cuts jobs during an economic downturn.

It is imperative that in implementing its layoff plan, Microsoft ensures that American workers have priority in keeping their jobs over foreign workers on visa programs."

In 2007, Microsoft petitioned the United States government for 959 H-1B visas, ranking fifth among the top 100 employers -- including U.S. and non-U.S.-based companies -- who requested the temporary visas to hire foreign workers for jobs in the United States.

For a look at that full list of employers requesting H-1B visas, click here.

So far, Microsoft's public response to Grassley's letter comes from Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos, who issued this statement:

"We made the difficult decisions on which jobs would be eliminated based on a detailed assessment of our current and future business opportunities. The initial reductions we announced affect employees in a number of business units, and a significant number of the affected employees are foreign citizens working in this country on a visa."

"We recognize the human impact that our workforce reduction has on every affected worker and their families. 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. We care about all our employees, so we are providing services and support to try to help every affected worker, whether they are U.S. workers or foreign nationals working in this country on a visa."

Grassley's letter also asked Ballmer several specific questions about Microsoft's layoff plans, including these:

• What is the breakdown in the jobs that are being eliminated? What kind of jobs are they? How many employees in each area will be cut?

• Are any of these jobs being cut held by H-1B or other work visa program employees? If so, how many?

• How many of the jobs being eliminated are filled by Americans? Of those positions, is Microsoft retaining similar ones filled by foreign guest workers? If so, how many?

• How many H-1B or other work visa program workers will Microsoft be retaining when the planned layoff is completed?

We'll keep you posted on whether Microsoft responds directly to Grassley's questions.

In the meantime, what's your gut telling you? Do you think Microsoft -- or any other U.S. tech employer laying off workers -- should prioritize to keep as many Americans as possible when handing out pink slips to techies?

Or, what other considerations do you think should have higher ranking than American citizenship when it comes to layoff decisions?

Tell us what you think.

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