This time that we all find ourselves in is surreal to say the very least. Nothing is as it should be, and we truly have no idea when the old normal will be new again. Yet certain aspects of our lives must continue to move forward, including in my case, the work that needs to be done for my clients. As complex as the world of immigration is, it is made unbelievably more so when COVID-19 (Coronavirus) changes the landscape almost moment to moment.
The Departments of Homeland Security and State have taken some steps towards flattening the curve (e.g., cancelling in-person appointments, cancelling visa interviews, etc.). Far more aggressive action is needed, however, to ensure the safety of all our federal employees, our immigrant clients, and their representatives.
Although the Executive Office of Immigration Review (“EOIR”) has suspended all immigration hearings for non-detained aliens, they inexplicably continue to go on for detained aliens, at great risk to the very same people I’ve noted who need to be protected. The EOIR should close all the immigration courts, yet continue to ensure reasonable and safe (e.g., telephonic or video) access to counsel for detainees. Equally as important, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) needs to ensure and protect immigrants from falling out of status during this awful COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) should extend all filing deadlines, excuse late filings and grant automatic extensions of stays for individuals whose authorized period of stay is set to expire. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Labor (“USDOL”) should relax its rules so individuals who are laid off or furloughed can maintain their lawful status.
I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received over the last week or two from corporate clients asking questions about what to do about particular employees, some of whom are here, for example, on H-1B nonimmigrant (or other similar) visas and who would or will be adversely impacted if they were laid off or furloughed. Our immigration law, unfortunately and not surprisingly, is not very forgiving in these situations.
For example, employers who hire individuals who work for them on H-1B nonimmigrant visas, know that USDOL’s regulations require that they continue to abide by the labor conditions to which they agreed when they filed the H-1B petition with USCIS. These are the terms set forth in what is called the Labor Condition Application (“LCA”) filed with the H-1B petition. These concern payment of the required wage, full-time vs. part-time employment of the employee, and notice to employees in the area of intended employment.
As we all know, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many local and state governmental authorities are instituting shelter-in-place, work-from-home, or stay-at-home orders to facilitate social distancing. In addition, the economic fortunes of many companies have fallen dramatically since the COVID-19 outbreak, including many small businesses that have all but shut down. This has prompted many employers to reevaluate their business operations. Consequently many employers are asking what happens to their foreign workers if they furlough, layoff, reduce hours, or they otherwise become unproductive during this crisis.
USDOL regulations require H-1B employers to pay the wage set forth in the LCA. Given that, how are employers able to place an H-1B worker in non-productive status while at the same time maintain compliance with the applicable DOL regulations requiring provision of the required wage irrespective of non-productive work status? The short answer is, they can’t.
“Non-productive status” is defined as any time during the validity of the LCA and H-1B petition where an employee is unable to work. When an employee is in a non-productive status due to a decision of the employer (e.g., due to a lack of work), under the regulations, the employer is still required to pay the required wage.
Likewise, an employer cannot furlough, layoff, bench, or otherwise render an H-1B worker non-productive and, as a result, stop offering the required wage, if the employee is not able to work from home during a COVID-19 pandemic initiated “stay at home” order from federal, state, or municipal government authorities. If an employer did so, it would risk liability such as fines, back wage obligations, and, in serious cases, debarment from the USDOL’s temporary and permanent immigration programs.
As I explained to a client the other day, an employer could seek to convert a full-time H-1B worker to part-time, but this would require not only the filing of a new LCA to reflect this change, but also the employer would then be required to file an amended H-1B petition with USCIS (expending additional fees along the way). Although the H-1B worker would be permitted to commence part-time employment upon USCIS’s receipt of the amended H-1B petition, before this happens the employer would need to make the decision to undergo this effort, which is no inexpensive effort in normal time, let alone these times.
USCIS should suspend (or even waive) the requirement that employers must file an amended or new H-1B petition when a new LCA is required due to a change in an H-1B worker’s employment as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Not only is there legal authority for USCIS to do this, it’s also clearly the right thing to do. These are unprecedented times. Our government needs to show some leadership (and heart) so as not to make a terrible situation worse on all employers affected by COVID-19 and their foreign-born employees.