H-1B visas: Not always a magic bullet for employers

Workstations in Delhi, India.

Satya Polavarapu is CEO of eVantage.

David Rutchik is a partner at Pace Harmon.

The immigration overhaul currently under debate in the Senate calls for increasing the number of so-called H-1B visas for highly skilled immigrant workers. Last April, companies -- particularly tech companies -- filed applications so fast they hit the annual H-1B quota of 65,000 in a matter of days. The Senate immigration bill looks to almost double that number. Companies contend the visas allow them to hire workers they say are hard to find in the U.S. But the visas are not always a magic bullet for employers. 

eVantage Technologies is a small consulting and software company in New Jersey. The company uses H-1B visas, when it needs highly specialized tech workers it says it can’t find in the U.S. Usually the process goes off without a hitch. But, about 10 percent of the time, there’s a problem -- a big problem. The person hired doesn’t show up, which leaves eVantage CEO Satya Polavarapu shaking his head.

“'Where is this person?'" he wonders. "Sometimes when we send emails or try to call them, there would be no response.”

Deadlines on important projects have to be pushed back because of no-shows. And Polavarapu  loses the thousands of dollars he spent hiring the H-1 B worker.

“Six thousand dollars in direct costs,” he says.

The costs of H-1 B visa filing fees and attorney's fees. Polavarapu never finds out what happened to the H-1 B worker he hired.  But chances are, the person is working for another U.S. tech company. Some foreign workers with very specialized skills apply for more than one H-1 B visa job. They get a number of offers and never contact the companies they reject.

“It’s a burden," he says. "Also, it makes you rethink your strategy.”

Polavarapu’s strategy now? He does all interviews in person or on Skype to try to get to know the people he’s hiring. But also because of another H-1B problem: The ringer. I’m talking about an imposter. Somebody who’s highly qualified, who does an interview on behalf of an H-1B job applicant who’s not qualified and is often overseas. The ringer wows the interviewer and the unqualified applicant is hired.

It happened to Kevin Raffay, a contract programmer who helps staff up projects for tech companies. He interviewed a ringer and told his boss -- hire that guy! He was surprised when a very inexperienced programmer showed up.

“The candidate that I recommended had good communication skills and was technically sound," he says. "This person had very poor communication skills and was very junior as far as his technical capabilities.”

Now, Raffay stresses this happened at the height of the dot-com boom, before Skype, a time when most interviews were done over the phone. Ringers were a lot more common then, but they’re still out there.  Just Google “proxy interviewer” if you want to find one. Raffay says some even advertise -- and set a price.

“'I’ll take your interview for $30.' You know, you’re talking about a half hour of time to answer some questions for somebody who’s not able to answer them,” he says.

These reports of H-1B visa fraud are starting to get the attention of bigger companies. David Rutchik is a partner at Pace Harmon, a large, outsourcing advisory firm just outside Washington. He tells clients looking to hire an H-1B visa worker: “You want to do everything you can do. You want to validate. You want to get all the transcripts. You want to check references. You know, if you don’t have a rigorous hiring process, shame on you. You put yourself at risk by not doing so.”

Rutchik has also noticed that the government is making employers jump through more hoops to get an H-1B visa. Possibly, he says, to prevent fraud.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Satya Polavarapu is CEO of eVantage.

David Rutchik is a partner at Pace Harmon.

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