When big tech laid off an H-1B worker, a countdown began to find a new job
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
People come from all over the world to work in U.S. tech. And during the tech boom years, the industry relied heavily on foreign workers. But when the industry started laying off workers last year, many people who moved here for work are finding that linking their jobs to their residency is complicated. Amanda Aronczyk from our Planet Money podcast followed a tech worker in the months following her layoff.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, BYLINE: In January of 2023, Aashka was working as a product engineer at Amazon when, along with 18,000 other people, she was laid off.
AASHKA: Yeah, it was pretty bad on that day. Like, I cried a lot because not in my wildest dreams I had imagined that I would be the one impacted.
ARONCZYK: We're only using Aashka's first name so we don't jeopardize her ability to find work. At the time of the layoffs, Aashka was working with Americans who also got laid off. And they were going to take time off. But Aashka couldn't do that. She's originally from India and is here in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, a temporary work visa, which means she had to find a job within 60 days of being terminated or leave the country. Plus, she has commitments here in the U.S. She had promised her family that she'd pay her younger sister's tuition, 22,000 a year.
AASHKA: So right now, I need to get a job as soon as possible so that I can pay her tuition fees in the next semester. So firstly, my focus is on landing a job right now.
ARONCZYK: The competition to get an H-1B visa is tough. Once a year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opens up a visa lottery. It's for people with a specialized skill who are often working in science and tech. Companies sponsor applicants that they hope to employ long term. This year, there were more than 780,000 applications. But only 85,000 visas will be granted. Aashka could keep her visa as long as she could find a new company to sponsor her. So once she got over getting laid off, she got into an intense routine.
AASHKA: In the morning, I woke up at 4. Done. Tick. I did my meditation. Tick. I did my gym-ing. Tick. So that makes me feel more accomplished throughout the day.
ARONCZYK: That structure helped her focus so she could start applying for jobs. We first spoke in February. And at that time, she was still quite sure that she could find one. She was feeling some real main character energy.
AASHKA: I have been joking that right now, I am the audience to my own story. And I'm waiting like, what will happen next in Aashka's life? So...
ARONCZYK: How do you feel like Aashka, the character in the movie, is doing? She doing OK?
AASHKA: (Laughter) She's a ninja right now. Like, she - now, when I think about myself, I think I'm stronger than I thought that I was.
ARONCZYK: Over the next few months, she submitted a ton of resumes and got interviews with about 35 companies. Usually, she would wait until the very end of these interviews to say, look; I'm on this H-1B visa. And a lot of times, that seemed to change the conversation. She wasn't getting any good job offers. Then, with just 20 days left before her visa was going to expire, I spoke with Aashka again. This time, she was no longer a job-applying ninja. In fact, her financial situation was so precarious, she needed to move.
AASHKA: So I am moving to Texas, to a friend's place, where I can live for some time without paying my rent.
ARONCZYK: Did you pack up your place in Seattle?
AASHKA: Yeah. So yeah, my room is filled with boxes and bags right now. Hopefully Texas brings me some good news.
ARONCZYK: A couple of weeks later, with just three days left before her visa expired, we spoke again.
AASHKA: I got a job at a pharmacy.
ARONCZYK: Aashka got a job working for a pharmacy, helping implement some AI and building tools so customers can order medications online. And her title sounds pretty good. She's VP of product. But she did not seem very relieved.
AASHKA: It is good news. But it's not paying me that well, so I am still looking out for a better option. I still can't move into my own rented apartment yet based on that, so yeah.
ARONCZYK: I see.
Even with a 50% reduction in pay, Aashka took the job because the company agreed to sponsor her visa. This keeps her life in the U.S. intact for now. But, she says, it's financially unsustainable. The H-1B visa program is supposed to help the economy by bringing in skilled workers. But right now, as the tech industry shrinks and there are layoffs, some of the rules are proving hard on the workers, people with commitments to pay their rent and help support their younger sisters.
Amanda Aronczyk, NPR News.
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MARTÍNEZ: One note - Amazon supports and pays to distribute some of our content. Google is also a financial supporter of NPR.
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