Banks sought foreign workers as Americans were laid off
By FRANK BASS and RITA BEAMISH Associated Press
Feb. 1, 2009, 11:22AM
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Major U.S. banks sought government permission to bring thousands of foreign workers into the country for high-paying jobs even as the system was melting down last year and Americans were getting laid off, according to an Associated Press review of visa applications.
The dozen banks now receiving the biggest rescue packages, totaling more than $150 billion, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years for positions that included senior vice presidents, corporate lawyers, junior investment analysts and human resources specialists. The average annual salary for those jobs was $90,721, nearly twice the median income for all American households.
As the economic collapse worsened last year — with huge numbers of bank employees laid off — the numbers of visas sought by the dozen banks in AP's analysis increased by nearly one-third, from 3,258 in the 2007 budget year to 4,163 in fiscal 2008.
The AP reviewed visa applications the banks filed with the Labor Department under the H-1B visa program, which allows temporary employment of foreign workers in specialized-skill and advanced-degree positions. Such visas are most often associated with high-tech workers.
It is unclear how many foreign workers the banks actually hired; the government does not release those details. The actual number is likely a fraction of the 21,800 foreign workers the banks sought to hire because the government only grants 85,000 such visas each year among all U.S. employers.
During the last three months of 2008, the largest banks that received taxpayer loans announced more than 100,000 layoffs. The number of foreign workers included among those laid off is unknown.
Foreigners are attractive hires because companies have found ways to pay them less than American workers.
Companies are required to pay foreign workers a prevailing wage based on the job's description. But they can use the lower end of government wage scales even for highly skilled workers; hire younger foreigners with lower salary demands; and hire foreigners with higher levels of education or advanced degrees for jobs for which similarly educated American workers would be considered overqualified.
"The system provides you perfectly legal mechanisms to underpay the workers," said John Miano of Summit, N.J., a lawyer who has analyzed the wage data and started the Programmers Guild, an advocacy group that opposes the H-1B system.
David Huber of Chicago is a computer networking engineer who has testified to Congress about losing out on a 2002 job with the former Bank One Corp. He learned later the bank applied to hire dozens of foreign visa holders for work he said he was qualified to do.
"American citizenship is being undermined working in our own country," Huber said in an AP interview.