So Cal Edison's Path to the Center of the H-1B Debate

Utility's IT department had reputation as a good place to work

outsourcing blue glow
Credit: Thinkstock

Southern California Edison was known for good pay and benefits before it began laying off IT workers and replacing them with H-1B visa holders.

Today, Edison (SCE) is the latest Exhibit A in Congress of a company whose IT workers are displaced through the use of the H-1B visa. Lawmakers are taking note.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in in a recent speech, called the replacement of U.S. workers by H-1B visa workers "a growing problem." U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) said SCE's move is "deeply disturbing."

The IEEE-USA, which has 200,000 members, sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday raising its own concerns. "Nobody can claim Americans could not be found to do these jobs – Americans were doing these jobs," wrote Jim Jefferies, the president of the IEEE-USA, about the SCE layoffs. The IEEE-USA represents engineers, including those in IT.

"This is the true face of the H-1B temporary visa program," Jefferies said. "There are 500 American citizens in California who will have lost their middle-class jobs by the end of March because of the H-1B program."

SCE said, in a statement, that it is "in full compliance with immigration laws, including H1-B visa requirements." SCE also said that any H-1B visa workers SCE hires "for its own workforce are paid a wage comparable to SCE's domestic workforce, consistent with legal requirements." But there is a distinction here.

The H-1B workers that are replacing SCE employees were brought in as contractors from offshore outsourcing companies Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services. To this, SCE said the contractors "must also comply with all applicable work authorization laws, including work visa requirements. SCE will exercise its contractual right to audit service providers to ensure they are in compliance."

How did SCE get to the point where it was seen as a good place to work to the center of the H-1B battle?

For years, SCE offered its employees stability. "Once you were in the door, you could retire from Edison," said one longtime employee, who trained his visa-holding replacement before leaving.

SCE was frequently listed on Computerworld's Best Places to Work, especially for its training program. But there was something wrong at SCE.

The employees regarded some of SCE's IT managers as autocratic and authoritarian. There were accounts of employees being humiliated in front of their peers and blamed when things went wrong. Favoritism was alleged in some management actions. Employees complained of "country club politics" in the organization. They also believed that there were too many managers.

This all came to light after an IT employee, Andre Turner, shot and killed two IT managers, wounded another and then killed himself on Dec. 16, 2011.

Following the shooting, SCE hired an organizational management consulting firm to examine the IT workplace. Consultants interviewed employees and the subsequent report, released in May of 2012, faulted management for an unhealthy culture.

Layoffs began soon after the consultant's report was released. SCE employees interviewed by Computerworld said the total number of job cuts is more than the 500 identified by company. Employee estimates of job cuts over the past two years range from 650 to well past 1,000. In early 2012, before the cuts began, the IT operations consisted of 1,831 employees and 1,500 contractors.

SCE's planning for outsourcing may have begun before the Turner shooting. Was the consultant's report a catalyst that led to a restructuring? That's hard to know, but employees see the Turner shooting as a clear turning point.

The independent consultant's report articulated management problems and gave voice to employee concerns. The very first set of layoffs that occurred affected managers, said IT employees interviewed.

Despite the management criticisms, employees said there were many positive things about SCE. The pay and benefits were good, and there was job security, which was also noted in the consultant's report.

Computerworld, which contacted SCE employees affected by the layoffs, were proud of their professionalism, skills and spoke highly of their co-workers. The consultant's report noted this as well: "They genuinely like their co-workers which is another significant source of workplace satisfaction."

These workers describe a supportive culture. Utility work can be dangerous for those in the field, and IT workers pulled together to help those affected by accidents, or to help a wounded veteran. One longtime employee recalled many instances of employees contributing vacation days and money to other workers.

"The best part of Edison was the closeness," said this worker.

The employees told the consultants, who met with employees as individuals and in groups, that they hoped that their work would make Edison a better place to work, and "initiate significant change."

What happened after the release of the report, however was aggressive cost cutting through layoffs and offshore outsourcing, said employees. For many, hope was replaced by something else.

"They should not bring their people over here on H-1B visas and do work on American soil and take our jobs," said one recently laid-off SCE IT worker. He spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

SCE is one of the largest offshore displacement efforts to gain attention. But how far this particular layoff goes in changing the H-1B debate remains to be seen.

Two lawmakers have spoken out, but others have not. The office of U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), whose district includes SCE's headquarters, has not commented on this layoff.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate's High-Tech Task Force, again asserted that the U.S. faces a skills shortage. He is co-sponsoring legislation that will raise the base H-1B cap of 65,000 to as high as 195,000. Hatch, in his speech, did not mention the visa's use in the displacement of U.S. workers at SCE or anyplace else.

This story, "So Cal Edison's Path to the Center of the H-1B Debate " was originally published by Computerworld.

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