Thursday, April 10, 2008

Remind Me Why We Need Immigration Reform?

Remind me why we need Immigration Reform?

The dysfunctional state of our immigration system was highlighted recently in the mad dash to the post office to file papers with the federal government. No, I am not talking about the annual ritual of filing income-tax returns on April 15; this is a more recent development that now takes place, appropriately, each April 1st.

To understand what takes place each April 1st, you must first understand a little about our immigration system.

Our federal government is properly tasked with the responsibility of maintaining our safety and economic security by controlling the entry of foreign-born persons into the U.S. The mechanism which provides the controlled entry of foreign-born persons is known as a ‘visa’. Although not everyone needs a visa to get into the U.S., (for example, persons from certain European countries wishing simply to visit the U.S. on vacation do not need a visa), if a foreign-born person wants to come to the U.S. temporarily to work, he or she will need a visa.

One of the more common visas for this purpose is known as an ‘H-1B visa’. This type of visa is set aside for persons in ‘specialty’ occupations such as engineers, physicians, software technicians, professors and computer programmers. Typically, such an employee must have at least a Bachelor’s degree to be hired by a U.S. employer.

The question you may ask is ‘do employers really need to bring in someone from outside the U.S. to fill such positions in the company?’

Evidently, the answer is ‘yes’.

Here’s why we know.

Each April 1st, overnight delivery trucks line up along the sidewalk outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) service center in St. Albans, Vermont – each truck filled with petitions for H-1B visas from around the United States. Visualize FedEx and UPS trucks vying for spots closest to the service drop-off in the early morning hours of April Fool’s Day. The situation is so overwhelming that USCIS, a department of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has even had to establish guidelines as to what to do with delivery trucks still sitting by the curb at 7:00 p.m. that evening – after the service center is closed. The reason St. Albans, Vermont is so popular this time of year is because it is one of only two service centers in the U.S. that adjudicates H-1B petitions.

There are about 65,000 H-1B visas available each year. There are also an additional 20,000 H-1B visas set aside for prospective employees who have a Master’s Degree or higher-level degree. However, an employer cannot file a petition for an employee’s H-1B visa more than 6 months before the date of hire. Since the allotment of H-1B visas becomes available the first day of each fiscal year, (October 1st), the first day an employer could file an H-1B petition, therefore, is six months before October 1 – which, as you may have guessed by now, is April 1st. Hence, the April Fool’s Day Rush.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

In fact, this is a very recent phenomenon brought about by a steep demand for skilled workers in a marketplace demanding advanced technological expertise and experience – coupled with a recent reduction in H-1B visas.

Around 1998, Congress recognized the increasing demand for the type of skilled workers under the H-1B visa program and increased the number of H-1B visas to 195,000 per year beginning in 2001; but after 2003, the H-1B ‘Cap’ reverted back to 65,000 – where it remains today despite a steep increase in demand for H-1B visas.

U.S. employers’ overwhelming demand for H-1B workers is evident in the filing process. For fiscal year 2007, petitions were filed beginning on April 1, 2006, but the allotment was used up before Memorial Day. The 20,000 additional visas for masters or advanced degrees lasted a few more months thereafter.

For this fiscal year, 2008, the service centers received over 150,000 regular H-1B visa petitions on the first day. Since only 65,000 were available, USCIS crafted an ad hoc lottery to randomly choose which timely-filed H-1B visa petitions it would adjudicate.

So that brings us to this year. Having a full year to consider how to handle the overwhelmed process to give U.S. employers greater access to a competitive global workforce, Congress responded to the problem by … doing nothing. U.S. employers responded by … moving many operations overseas where gambling on the lottery to get a foreign worker was not necessarily a sound business strategy.

It remains to be seen just how many petitions were filed this year. However, at least one accommodation was made: this year’s lottery will include 5 days’ worth of petitions rather than just one. Meanwhile, FedEx and UPS trucks are on their way back from St. Albans, Vermont, and around the country HR managers are sitting at desks with their fingers crossed – hoping that today they might just win the lottery.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Did you bring your metronome to work?

Keeping with the theme of spring and warmer temperatures. . . .

Workplace appearance. I can sense the uncomfortable shifting in your chair as you read those words. Employers often struggle with enforcement of a workplace dress code because it can develop into such a subjective exercise. We often spend our time talking to our employer clients about being objective in their assessment of employees; the mention of a concept that naturally encompasses subjectiveness well, naturally causes uneasiness.

Do you often find that your workplace appearance policy gets more mileage during the warmer months than the colder months? Certainly it does. And it's not just clothing that has come under scrutiny for employers. Shoes, or lack thereof, have become the bane of many HR manager's existence.

Blame it on Rainbow. Or Sanuk. Or Reef. Or any of the other popular flip-flop labels. Flops are vogue--very hip, very fashionable, and very prevalent. They've gone way beyond the standard black sole with a rubber thong style that many of us used to equate with flops. Now they come in rather dressy (loosely used) styles, and men are just as likely to sport them as women.

If you can get past the tocking sound of the flops, and if you don't work in an area that requires closed-toe shoes, then you may be weighing the implications of giving in to what you see is the inevitable--flops as an acceptable form of "dress" in the workplace. It may be an issue you are forced to address as the flop generation enters the workforce.

At the end of the day, it comes down to (say it with me, please) uniform enforcement of your policies. If you have a policy that doesn't allow for flops, then blow off the dust from that policy and be ready to use it when you hear the employee coming (because you know you will). Otherwise, think of flops as yet more confirmation that warmer temperatures are indeed here (as if the yellow film of pollen on your car didn't already remind you).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Spring is in the air

The give away could have been the warmer temperatures. The buds on the dogwoods. The leaves waving in the breezes. The longer hours of daylight. The allergy-induced sneezes around the office.

The give away could also be, though, the philanthropic opportunities that abound. When the temperatures rise, so do the number of walks and races. Many employees enjoy participating in these events, which can present a problem for employers who have non-solicitation policies. You don't want to quell the well-placed intentions of the employees. Almost everyone can find an organization to support who has one of these physical fundraisers. Yet you also know that some organizations can be more controversial than others. Controversy aside, some employees feel tapped out by the time spring gets here, what with the cookie, popcorn, candy, wrapping paper, pizza kits, stationary, and calendar sales that dominate the fall and winter months.

For some employers, the easy way to address this is to completely bar these events--no posters, no e-mails, no flyers in the kitchen, etc. Others take the approach that only employer-sponsored events can be solicited, and those are usually done indirectly (such as by e-mail or by posting something without any fanfare). Still others have a free-for-all, seeing these activities as a way to build employee friendships and cooperation.

Whatever your approach, as always, ensure that it complies with your non-solicitation policy. If you don't have one of those policies, then take care to see that you have some type of objective criteria (written or no) that provides guidance on when you do allow for solicitation and when it is prohibited.

Happy running/walking! (We have to figure out some way to work off those cookie, popcorn, candy, and pizza pounds, don't we?)