H-1B Visas: 6 Most Misunderstood Facts - InformationWeek

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11/20/2013
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H-1B Visas: 6 Most Misunderstood Facts

The H-1B visa program has cooked up a hot stew of myths and misconceptions. Legal experts break down the facts on salaries, timing, and more.

It's just a couple of letters, one number and a hyphen. But say "H-1B" in IT circles and you're likely to get reactions from all over the map.

H-1B visas are issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to foreign workers for "specialty occupations." They're commonly used by companies to fill in-demand technology jobs, though the visa isn't limited to IT professionals. Because immigration -- not to mention economic policy, the unemployment rate, and discussions of an IT skills shortage -- is a naturally contentious topic, H-1B visas are sometimes misunderstood by employers and employees alike.

We asked Ronald Rose, a partner with the law firm Rose Carson Kaplan Choi & White, and James Richards, CEO of Teleborder, to help us debunk some of the common myths surrounding H-1Bs. Rose's areas of specialty include immigration and technology law. Richards's firm makes cloud software that automates much of the paperwork and bureaucracy involved for employers that hire foreign workers. In separate interviews, they cleared up some common misconceptions about the H-1B process. Note that what follows applies to new H-1B applications, not renewals of existing visas.

Myth 1: You can apply for new H-1B visas at any time.

Reality: The window for new applications opens only once a year, on April 1. The window closes as soon as the cap for that year -- currently set at 65,000 visas, with an additional 20,000 reserved for people with advanced degrees -- is met. Once the window closes, that's it for the year -- USCIS won't accept any more new applications until the following April. Successful applicants receive their visas on Oct. 1 of the same calendar year, which is the start of the new federal fiscal year.

Takeaway: H-1B visas aren't often a good solution for immediate, short-term hiring needs. You need to plan ahead -- and be aware that even successful applications don't kick in for another six months.

[ Is there really an IT talent shortage? Read IT Talent Shortage Or Purple Squirrel Hunt? ]

Myth 2: H-1B applications remain static.

Reality: The volume of applications tends to reflect the overall US economy and job market. In 2013, the April application period lasted just five days, marking the first time since 2008 that the window closed in less than a week. USCIS received 124,000 applications for new H-1B visas for fiscal year 2014; visas were then granted based on a random lottery. Applications were lower in the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, as payrolls shrank and unemployment rose. In 2012, by comparison, the window didn't close until June 11.

"Right now, we're experiencing a boom in [the technology sector], and so there has been a corresponding boom in H-1B applications," Richards said.

Takeaway: The application process isn't for the meek. You need to have your paperwork ready to submit immediately on April 1 or risk missing the window altogether. "[That] really means starting the process by February," Richards said.

Myth 3: The application is the only the hurdle you need to clear.

Reality: Once the visa is issued, the real work begins for organizations with H-1B workers on their payroll. "A visa is just the start of an ongoing relationship that you have with your worker," Richards said, adding that visas come with considerable compliance requirements.

Richards and Rose both said that audits of businesses that employ foreign workers are on the rise. Both UCSIS and the Department of Labor are empowered to conduct such audits. "They can come knock on your door and ask to see all of your compliance files related to your H-1B workforce," Richards said. "If they don't exist, you're going to be hit with heavy, heavy sanctions."

According to Richards, a common misstep made by H-1B employers, especially smaller ones, is that they add the employee to payroll too soon or too late. Start them too late and "it looks like you're underpaying them, which is a [significant problem]," Richards said. "If you start someone on payroll before their visa starts, that's even worse -- because that means that you're employing someone who is not authorized to work in the United States."

Takeaway: Understand what you're getting into. Synchronize payroll with visa dates and other terms. Stay organized. Handle paperwork as if you'd welcome a government audit, not as if you're simply trying to avoid one -- or, worse, as if you assume it will never happen to you.

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/20/2013 | 8:39:50 AM
H-1B Myths
I think #5 may be the least understood point in the complicated discussion around H-1B. Do people in the trenches agree with how this expert explained it? Does it mesh with what you have experienced?
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