Foreign Workers, Virus-Related Layoffs, and Benefit Packages

By David North on April 20, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

If more than 20 million Americans have been laid off because of the virus, there are foreign workers who have lost their jobs, too. What happens to them after the layoff? To what extent do the unemployed aliens leave the nation?

Good questions, and ones I have not seen raised. My sense is that green card holders are experiencing unemployment just about like citizen workers with the same sets of skills, and that with the nonimmigrant workers, the answers are more complex.

It is useful in this connection to divide the nonimmigrant work force into three groupings:

  1. The legal and employer-tied, notably the H-1Bs (highly skilled), the H-2As (farmworkers), the H-2Bs (non-skilled, non-ag), some of the J-1s (exchange visitors), and all of the L-1s (intra-company transferees).
  2. The legal and non-employer-tied, such as E-2s (treaty traders), F-1s (current students), H-4s (H-1B relatives), DACA recipients (partially legalized), TPS (those in temporary protected status), OPT workers (recent alien college grads), and asylees.
  3. Illegal aliens.

These groupings are my own invention, based on decades studying these programs and a bit of common sense. Over and above these distinctions, there is the inevitable division between those with advantages, and those without, with the former being less likely to suffer from unemployment than the latter.

In this and subsequent posts we will explore (and speculate) about the incidence of unemployment in these various groupings, and the extent to which government programs may be helping some of them.

Who Gets Laid Off? My sense is that the likelihood of unemployment among these groups relates primarily to the sector of the economy to which they belong, and to their immigration status.

On the first point, we know that service and retail workers have suffered the highest levels of unemployment. If a store, or hotel, or barbershop is closed, its workers are likely to be out of work; if the nature of the work is such that the employees can work from home, they are less likely to be laid off.

Generally, few in Group 1 work in retail, and so are unlikely to be unemployed; further who can be better suited for work at home than the H-1Bs, most of whom work in computer-related fields?

Then there is the little recognized value of the specific H worker to his or her employer; that employer has spent considerable time and energy securing the services of these workers, they are generally less well paid than citizens (one of their major attractions) and are partially indentured to the employer (the other main attraction). All else being equal, the employer will make every effort to hold on to these workers as they are not easily replaced. Further, if the employer senses a falling need for these workers, the easiest thing to do is to not apply for more of them.

With their potential employers calling for big increases in both the H-2A and the H-2B programs, it is hard to imagine someone in those categories being out of work for long.

For these reasons I suspect that the incidence of unemployment among Group 1 workers is considerably below the level for citizen workers. (There never will be statistical data on this point, however.)

Group 2 workers, on the other hand, look much more like citizen workers; they get their legal status (temporary though it is in most cases) because of something intrinsic within the worker, not because of a tie to an employer. Most of them can be hired as readily as citizen workers, with no extra paperwork for the employer.

These workers are probably about as likely to become unemployed as citizens, and once unemployed they are no more likely to be deported than any other alien, because, generally, their legal presence is not tied to employment.

There is one exception to this rule: Optional Practical Training (OPT) workers nominally must have an approved job to stay in legal status; but ICE has shown no particular interest in any aspect of the OPT program, and the odds of it chasing down individual alien college grads for not being in an approved OPT job are between zero and minus one. An OPT worker without an approved job who commits a felony might be deported, but it would be because of the felony, nothing else.

Group 3 workers are illegal aliens, either those who have crossed the border without being inspected (EWIs) or those who have overstayed their visas (visa abusers). The former probably have a lower level of skills and English-speaking ability than the latter. As to their incidence of unemployment, I have no suggestion. On one hand they have an attraction to employers because of their vulnerability, and on the other I suspect a large portion of them are engaged in the retail (notably restaurants) and the service sectors, and so are likely to lose their jobs.

My next posting will deal with what happens to alien workers when they lose their jobs. To what extent do they leave the country? And to what extent do they receive benefits that may encourage them to stay in the States?