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Originally published Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Lawmaker asks Microsoft about keeping American workers

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has sent a letter to Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer expressing concern over how the company may go about its layoffs.

Seattle Times technology reporter

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has sent a letter to Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer expressing concern over how the company may go about its layoffs.

"I am concerned that Microsoft will be retaining foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American employees when it implements its layoff plan," Grassley said in the letter, posted to his Web site on Friday.

The company announced plans Thursday to cut a net 2,000 to 3,000 jobs over the next 18 months, its first companywide layoff. An initial wave of 1,400 job cuts were effective Friday.

The senator asked Ballmer for details on the jobs to be eliminated; how many are held by H-1B or other work-visa-program employees; how many are held by Americans and, of those positions, how many similar positions held by foreign guest workers are being retained; and how many H-1B or other work-visa-program workers Microsoft will retain when the layoff is complete.

"My point is that during a layoff, companies should not be retaining H-1B or other work-visa-program employees over qualified American workers," Grassley wrote.

"Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American work force. ... Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times."

In response to a query about Grassley's letter, Microsoft said the initial layoffs include foreigners working here on visas.

"The initial reductions we announced affect employees in a number of business units, and a significant number of the affected employees are foreign citizens working in this country on a visa," said company spokesman Lou Gellos. " ... For many of the employees here on a visa, being laid off means that they have to leave the country on very short notice, in many cases uprooting families and children."

Cletus Weber, co-founder and partner with Mercer Island-based immigration law firm Peng & Weber, said determining layoffs by nationality or immigration status could violate anti-discrimination laws.

"I know of no immigration law that would require Microsoft or any other U.S. company to lay off its lawfully employed foreign workers first," Weber wrote in an e-mail.

"To the contrary, I believe arbitrarily laying off lawfully employed foreign workers first would subject these companies to potential legal liability under federal anti-discrimination laws."

Grassley pointed out that Microsoft has lobbied Congress for an expansion of the H-1B program.

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The program allows American employers and institutions to temporarily hire foreign guest workers with at least the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor's degree in a job category considered a "specialty occupation."

In 2007, Microsoft said that about one-third of its 46,000 U.S.-based employees at the time had work visas or were legal permanent residents with green cards.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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