Laid-Off Tech Workers On H-1B Visas Might Be Forced To Leave The Country

Rohan Patil came to the US from India in 2015 to get a graduate degree in computer science. Patil was “fascinated by America,” he said, and when he got a job in machine learning and research at Amazon two years later, he was elated.

“It felt great to join Big Tech,” said Patil, who requested an alias so that he could talk candidly. “The folks back home loved it. The money was great. It was a bit surreal to see yourself earning more than most of America.”

Eventually, a recruiter from Meta (then Facebook) reached out, and Patil started working for the social media giant in New York in 2019. “I bought big into Meta’s culture,” Patil said. He liked how fast-paced the company was and the impact that it had on the lives of billions of people around the world. “We felt invincible,” he said.

At 5 a.m. ET on Nov. 9, an email from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg hit Patil’s inbox. Meta was laying off more than 11,000 people, about 13% of its workforce. Patil wasn’t surprised. Reports about Meta’s impending layoffs had begun circulating just days before. But at 6 a.m., Patil got another email. It contained a separation agreement, confirming that he was one of the people being let go.

“I really couldn’t believe it,” Patil said. Morale at Meta had cratered since June, when Zuckerberg said he was “turning up the heat” to encourage people to leave the company. But Patil thought he would be safe because he was a high performer. “Layoffs were coming,” he said, “but like everybody else at the company, I thought, Not in my backyard!

Bad news has arrived in thousands of technology workers’ backyards recently. In 2022, tech companies around the country made some of their biggest cuts yet, thanks to a pandemic-era slowdown of online growth and a potential economic recession. More than 140,000 tech workers have lost their jobs so far this year, according to Layoffs.fyi, a tracker created by Roger Lee, a San Francisco–based entrepreneur. Nearly two-thirds of November’s 45,000 cuts were from Meta, Amazon, Twitter, and Cisco alone. Other companies, like Apple and Alphabet, have slowed down or frozen hiring entirely.

For Patil, there was an additional complication — he is on an H-1B work visa. That’s the most common type of visa used by technology companies in the US to hire international workers in fields like computer science where American representation is usually low. A recent analysis of US Citizenship and Immigration Services data by Bloomberg showed that companies like Meta, Amazon, Twitter, Salesforce, Stripe, and Lyft hired at least 45,000 workers on H-1B visas over the last three years. Because the H-1B visa is tied to one’s employer, laid-off H-1B holders have 60 days to find a new job — or leave the country.

“I was basically fucked,” Patil said.

Now, Patil and thousands of other laid-off workers on visas are racing against the clock to find new jobs to avoid having to abruptly uproot themselves and their families and leave the country. It can be a daunting situation — many have mortgages to pay, children in school, or other life complications.

Hours after Meta announced its layoffs last month, hundreds of workers on visas frantically started drafting an email for the company’s human resources department. They had a request: Since Meta was offering them four months of severance pay, could they stay on the payroll for that amount of time instead of having their employment terminated after the federally mandated two months’ notice? Being on the payroll for longer would give them more time to find something else, the laid-off workers wrote. Many tech companies had a hiring freeze, they noted, and getting new jobs during the holiday season would be tough.

“[This] puts our families, spouses, and kids in school in a terrible situation,” the employees wrote in a draft of the email read out to BuzzFeed News by a former Meta employee. “Looking forward to getting a kind extension for the last day of notice period in this difficult time for all of us.”

In a WhatsApp group of hundreds of laid-off Meta employees on work visas, the mood was tense, according to two former employees in the chat who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation from Meta. Some people wanted more colleagues to sign the letter to put pressure on management. Others wanted nothing to do with it lest they anger senior executives.

A Meta spokesperson declined to comment on the letter or whether Meta considered the request.

Meanwhile, on LinkedIn, desperate posts from panicked workers on H-1B visas from Meta and other companies have been going viral.

“My employment is terminated immediately with no reason today by Elon’s Twitter 2.0 team before Thanksgiving,” posted Yiwei Zuang, a former machine learning engineer at Twitter. “I am on an H1B visa and have only 60 days to start a new job.” Zuang’s post was shared more than 500 times, receiving nearly 15,000 likes and more than 800 comments full of potential leads and messages of solidarity.

“Consider moving to Vancouver too,” one commenter said. “As an experienced engineer, you can comfortably get a permanent residence on landing and not worry about the shitty H1B ever again.”

Other LinkedIn users posted about the difficulty of finding a new job in the current climate. “60 days is not enough for most people to find a job in a recession-induced economy and holiday season,” a software engineer wrote on his own page. “Hundreds if not thousands of folks and their families will have to leave the country and start their lives again. Parents and their kids could be separated. Years of hard work and personal sacrifices, working in the U.S. would amount to nothing.”