Posted on

Indians Firms May Benefit From Trump’s H-1B Limits

When President Trump suspended a raft of visa programs in June, including temporary permits for highly technical foreign workers known as H-1B visas, he portrayed the order as a victory for the American work force. Further overhauls were in the works, he said weeks later, “so that no American worker is replaced ever again.”

The order is now in front of the courts, after a judge on Thursday blocked the order and ruled that Mr. Trump had overstepped his authority. The move will allow some companies, like Microsoft and Exxon Mobil, to bring temporary workers into the United States again. The issue will now go to an appeals court, which may rule in favor of Mr. Trump’s sweeping order.

But the fate of the program still remains in doubt. The Department of Homeland Security has submitted a new regulation for federal review that would toughen H-1B eligibility and impose new obligations on the companies trying to bring in foreign workers.

The uncertainty has thrown the plans of major companies in doubt and has already disrupted the lives of thousands of foreign workers, particularly those from India, who claim more than two-thirds of the H-1B visas issued each year.

The confusion might all be in vain, however. Experts say restrictions will do little to accomplish their stated goal of encouraging companies to hire Americans instead of workers from abroad. In fact, limits on H-1B visas may have the unintended effect of spurring American companies to shift even more work abroad.

Already, Indian outsourcing companies are working to cast the new restrictions as an opportunity to do just that.

“In America, there is a genius mix of homegrown and transplanted talent. The high level of global competition gives America its tech edge,” said Sandeep Kishore, the chief executive officer of Zensar Technologies, an Indian firm that employs more than 9,500 people globally.

More than 400 are on work visas in Zensar’s offices in the United States, he said, but more work could drift to India if companies cannot hire who they want.

The United States “risks giving up its edge,” Mr. Kishore said. “If we can’t bring this talent into the U.S., we’ll place them in our offices overseas.”

The pandemic, which has forced millions to work from home, could reinforce the idea that more American jobs can be done remotely.

The June suspension did not affect the foreign workers already in the United States on H-1B visas. But it upended the lives of those who were outside the country when the president issued his suspension.

Sonal Thakkar, a lead consultant at an Indian information technology firm in San Jose, Calif., rushed back to India last year to apply for an extension of her visa.

In March, her visa interview was canceled after India’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown to stop the coronavirus. Then, Mr. Trump’s suspension came.

This week, Ms. Thakkar received an email from the office of the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai, saying her visa application had been “refused” and sent for “mandatory administrative processing.” It’s a process that could take months and she fears she could still be denied a visa after that.

Now, Ms. Thakkar is not sure when she can return to the United States and her husband, who is still in San Jose on an H-1B visa.

“I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “We’ve been together for six years. I am losing so many memories and I’m unable to create new ones.”

Credit…Sonal Thakkar

An executive at Infosys, one of India’s biggest technology companies, said in a LinkedIn post that it arranged a chartered flight to bring back more than 200 workers and their families to India, after their American visas expired. The company declined to comment.

Even before Mr. Trump’s election, limiting the H-1B program had won some bipartisan support. The program allows companies to bring in well-educated or technically skilled workers from abroad temporarily. About 65,000 candidates are selected each year by lottery. The workers can bring their families, but they must apply for green cards separately if they want to remain in the United States once their work ends.

Some labor groups say companies use the program to bring in cheap labor. Often, they say, H-1B visa holders are not stars in their fields but hold skills that can be easily found domestically.

“There are very few people in this world who are truly innovative, and our economy depends on them,” said Russell Harrison, the director of government relations for the IEEE-USA, an association representing more than 170,000 technology professionals that supports H-1B restrictions.

Sensitive to the criticism, Indian outsourcing companies have long stressed plans to hire in the United States. In early September, Infosys announced it would hire 12,000 more Americans over the next two years.

Indian outsourcing companies dominated the H-1B lottery a decade ago, but sponsors now include some of the biggest names in American technology. Seven of the top 10 sponsors last year were American, including Amazon and Google, according to official citizenship data. About 15 percent of Facebook’s employees are H-1B holders.

If the government considerably limits the number of H-1B workers they can bring in, companies may send the work overseas instead.

“The work will go to India more because there is an abundance of high-quality college-educated tech labor in India,” said William Lazonick, an economist and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who has studied the globalization of business. “It is obviously an advantage if that higher-quality labor force is less expensive to employ than workers in the company’s home country.”

Research is scant, but at least one study has found that limits on H-1B visas lead to more hiring overseas. The study, by Britta Glennon, an assistant professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, compared periods of tightened H-1B restrictions with hiring by major firms and found greater hiring in places like China and India, which have a large pool of skilled workers, and Canada, which has looser immigration policies.

Like industries around the globe, the outsourcing business took a substantial hit during the coronavirus pandemic. The troubles were particularly acute in India, where many workers lack the equipment or the internet connections to work from home.

Tech companies struggled to source hundreds of thousands of laptops in the early weeks of the pandemic. They sent desktop computers to workers’ homes and enabled firewalls to fend off cyberattacks.

At Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest information technology firm with more than 400,000 workers globally, these responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Amit Jain, the global head of I.T. infrastructure, based in Mumbai.

Mr. Jain, who worked at the company for 32 years, died in March after suffering a heart attack.


Credit…The Jain family.

“He was overworked and extremely exhausted,” said his brother, Mukul Jain. “He told me he hadn’t slept in two to three days because he was helping employees in India, Europe and the U.S. to work from home.”

T.C.S. declined to comment about Mr. Jain’s death. A public relations firm that represents the company said that about 95 percent of T.C.S. employees were now working remotely.

Now India’s outsourcing companies are seeing their results stabilize. Share prices have risen as investors bet that companies looking to trim costs and reduce head count seek their services.

Indeed, companies have resumed looking toward outsourcing companies. In July, Vanguard, the mutual fund company, said it struck a deal with Infosys of India to assume 1,300 back office positions, like record keeping and technology services. Workers would be offered comparable jobs at Infosys, said a spokeswoman for Vanguard, adding that the decision was unrelated to the pandemic or the shifts in the H1-B program.

India’s outsourcing companies face long-term challenges. Cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence could eventually take over some of their tasks. The companies themselves are trying to move up the value chain to do more of the innovative technology work done in Silicon Valley and China.

“Most of the larger Indian I.T. companies haven’t expanded in that direction. They haven’t expanded to semiconductors, e-commerce, gaming and other technologies,” said Nitin Soni, a Singapore-based analyst and senior director at Fitch Ratings, a credit rating firm. “They have stuck to their core strengths, which are all in the realm of automation of organizational stuff.”

But companies rethinking the future of the office could offer them new opportunities.

“If you can get the same or better talent at lower cost, which allows you to do your business 24 hours, then that’s a good value proposition,” said Ajay Gupta, Mumbai-based partner at global consulting firm Kearney.

Of traditional offices, he added, “even companies within India are saying, ‘We don’t need this rigid infrastructure.’”

Vindu Goel contributed reporting from Berkley, Calif.

Read More

Posted on

Dear Sophie: Latest immigration and H-1B updates

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

“Dear Sophie” columns are accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.

Dear Sophie:

I work in people ops in tech. Restrictions and conditions placed on visas and green cards seem to be continuously changing.

What’s the latest for tech, such as H-1Bs and other nonimmigrant visas?

—Strong in San Francisco

Dear Strong:

And what a summer it’s been! Fortunately there’s a bunch of great news in immigration this week. I’d love to dive in to new State Department exceptions that apply for new H-1B visas at embassies and consulates around the world. This will help a lot of tech companies whose H-1B employees got stuck outside the U.S. on trips for “visa stamping” (consular interviews) earlier this year.

Before we get into that though, I wanted to share some additional and recent top immigration highlights: First, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is restarting interviews (our team just handled several naturalization interviews remotely for clients across the country) and it looks like green cards will be scheduled again soon. Second, USCIS announced that it is canceling plans to furlough more than 13,000 employees next week, thereby averting a massive slowdown of visa and green card processing. Third, for those Dreamers out there and the tech companies who love them, USCIS is starting to accept some DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewals and work permit applications.

Read More

Posted on

Coronavirus Leads Japan to Lock Borders, Shutting Out Foreign Workers

TOKYO — When Jeff Mazziotta, a director of a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization, left Japan for South Africa in early March, he planned to spend a month training park rangers on emergency field medicine before returning to Tokyo.

Nearly five months later, Mr. Mazziotta is still stuck abroad. He is one of nearly 100,000 foreign residents of Japan who have been prevented from re-entering the country since April under its stringent coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Japan’s rules, which stand out for making permanent and long-term residents ineligible for travel privileges granted to citizens, have left Mr. Mazziotta and many others in a difficult bind.

He has been forced to rely on a friend for financial support because he has little cash and no access to his Japanese bank account. His office in Japan, where he works as an English teacher to supplement his nonprofit work, put him on unpaid leave, and he has been unable to pay the rent on his Tokyo apartment.

“How am I going to recover from four months of lost pay and the bills that have been building up?” Mr. Mazziotta, an American citizen, said during a video chat in late July. Foreign residents who feel abandoned, he added, are “questioning the time and energy they spent building a life in Japan.”

Japan, a country known for its hospitality but also for casting a sometimes wary eye on its foreign residents, has been promoting itself as the premier Asian destination for global capital and talent, with an eye on wooing financial firms fleeing Hong Kong. But its treatment of foreign residents during the pandemic has undercut that message and shaken the trust of the country’s international community.

The restrictions have provoked loud protests from foreign businesses and residents in Japan. Executives at major international firms say they are rethinking their ties to the country, including how its handling of foreigners could hinder business continuity in an already uncertain time.

Credit…Cassandra Zona

In response, Japan has said it will ease some of the re-entry rules to gradually allow those like Mr. Mazziotta who have been trapped abroad to return to the country. But the changes do not apply to everyone: As many as 17,000 long-term residents of Japan could remain stuck outside the country, according to government data.

For many, the damage is done: The restrictions have split up families, hurt careers and caused students to miss months of school. Some of those stranded outside the country have been saddled with mountains of debt as they continue to pay taxes and rents on homes in Japan while also bearing the costs of being abroad.

The ban has also affected the 2.5 million foreigners who remain in Japan. Many have faced agonizing decisions over whether to leave to care for a dying parent, grieve the loss of a loved one or reunite with a spouse or child, knowing that doing so may make it impossible to return.

“If you’re thinking about setting up your business in a place that is as safe and predictable as possible, Japan certainly has that in its favor,” said Christopher LaFleur, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

But “the policy in terms of travel has de facto discriminated against the foreign national residents of Japan,” he said, adding that it “certainly is going to weigh on people’s calculus in the months ahead.”

Japan is far from the only country to tighten its borders to control the spread of the virus, with many nations restricting or even stopping short-term travel for business and tourism. All told, Japan has banned entry from 146 countries, including places, like New Zealand and Taiwan, that appear to have eradicated the virus.

Both New Zealand and Taiwan allow long-term residents to travel freely, requiring only a quarantine period upon arrival. Japan, by contrast, is the only member of the Group of 7 industrialized nations to restrict travel by foreign residents while allowing its citizens to come and go as they please.

Japanese officials have said the restrictions on foreign residents are necessary to protect the country from the larger-scale outbreaks abroad and to avoid overwhelming the capacity of airports to test travelers for infection.

More than six months into the crisis, Japan can test only about 33,000 people a day — far fewer than nearly all of its peer countries. Around 3,000 of those tests have been reserved for the country’s international airports — administered to both Japanese and foreign travelers — with plans to increase the number to about 10,000 in September.


Credit…Kimimasa Mayama/EPA, via Shutterstock

Long-term residents have generally been unable to re-enter Japan since April 3. Those who have sought to leave after that date are allowed to return only if they fall into one of a handful of special categories, including “humanitarian” exemptions allowing them to care for a sick relative or attend a parent’s funeral.

But the guidelines are ill defined, and even for those who would seem to meet the requirements, return is not guaranteed. Before leaving the country, travelers must sign a document acknowledging that they may not be allowed to return. The final decision rests with the immigration agent who greets them at the airport.

Julie Sergent, a consultant in the hospitality industry, made three unsuccessful attempts to leave the country to spend time with her family after her father’s death.

She said that in late July, a month after her most recent attempt, officials told her that her situation did not qualify for re-entry, questioning why she would still need to grieve with her family when so much time had passed since her father’s funeral.

“I promote Japan; I want the country to do well,” she said. But, she added, “if this situation drags on too long, I might take the decision to leave Japan and move to a country where I have more rights.”

Immigration officials said they could not comment about individual cases.

The travel rules have also made it harder for many people to do business. Mark Borer, a permanent resident of Japan, where he has lived for 25 years, owns a small plastics recycling company in Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, that employs some 20 people, including six workers from Vietnam. He also has a real estate business in the United States.

The restrictions have hampered both ventures, he said in a recent phone call, noting that he and his employees alike had been unable to travel for either business or personal matters since April, when Japan briefly declared a national emergency.

“I really love the country, and I’ve been here half my life,” he said, but “it’s a punch in the gut.”

If the restrictions are not lifted in the next few months, he said, “you’re forced to think maybe we need to end up selling or closing down the business here.”

It’s not just foreign-owned businesses that have been affected. Japanese construction companies, said Gordon Hatton, co-chairman of the real estate committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, have become increasingly reliant on foreign workers to fulfill a range of functions from manual labor to structural engineering.

If foreign employees “have to leave for some personal reason and they can’t come back,” he said, “that’s a huge waste for the Japanese companies as well, not just these individuals, so it has an impact on the bigger economy.”

Aware of foreign residents’ concerns, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month that Japan would loosen some of the rules. On Wednesday, immigration officials said at a news conference that they had begun readmitting those who left before the start of the restrictions in April.


Credit…Issei Kato/Reuters

But even as they moved to loosen restrictions, officials added 17 countries to the re-entry ban list and instituted a rule requiring that travelers take a coronavirus test and receive a negative result no more than 72 hours before departing for Japan. That may be impossible for residents who are stuck in countries where tests are in short supply or results come slowly.

The Asahi Shimbun, a leading newspaper, reported that Japan would initially allow an additional 500 foreigners a day to re-enter. That low figure, as well as the uncertainty over how the loosening would be carried out, has led people like Keifer Castigador, an engineer from the Philippines who left Japan in late February, to be wary of trying to return.

Mr. Castigador went to the Philippines to help his wife recover from an emergency cesarean section. He tried to return in May, when Japan announced that it was reopening to residents who had qualified for a humanitarian exemption. He confirmed his status with Japanese officials, but when he tried to re-enter the country, he was turned away, he said.

He was held in detention for a night at his own expense and returned to the Philippines, he said, where he had to go into quarantine. He is now waiting to see how the new rules play out before he tries to return.

“We’re sitting it out this time because it was too much for us last time,” he said.

For Mr. Mazziotta, the English teacher, the experience has left an indelible impression. He has applied to the Japanese Embassy in South Africa for permission to return under the new rules, but has not yet heard back. His Japanese work visa runs out in September, and with no clarity about when he will be allowed to return, he is beginning to lose hope.

“Even if I can go back,” he said, “I wonder if the mountain that has been built is too difficult to climb.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

Posted on

They Crossed Oceans to Lift Their Families Out of Poverty. Now, They Need Help.

LONDON — For more than a decade, Flavius Tudor has shared the money he has made in England with his mother in Romania, regularly sending home cash that enabled her to buy medicine.

Last month, the flow reversed. His 82-year-old mother sent him money so he could pay his bills.

Suffering a high fever and a persistent cough amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Tudor, 52, could no longer enter the nursing home where he worked as a caregiver. So his mother reached into her pension, earned from a lifetime as a librarian in one of Europe’s poorest countries, and sent cash to her son in one of the wealthiest lands on earth.

“It’s very tough times,” he said. “I’m lost.”

Around the globe, the pandemic has jeopardized a vital artery of finance supporting hundreds of millions of families — so-called remittances sent home from wealthy countries by migrant workers. As the coronavirus has sent economies into lockdown, sowing joblessness, people accustomed to taking care of relatives at home have lost their paychecks, forcing some to depend on those who have depended on them.

Last year, migrant workers sent home a record $554 billion, more than three times the amount of development aid dispensed by wealthy countries, according to the World Bank. But those remittances are likely to plunge by one-fifth this year, representing the most severe contraction in history.

The drop amounts to a catastrophe, heightening the near-certainty that the pandemic will produce the first global increase in poverty since the Asian financial crisis of 1998. Some 40 million to 60 million people are expected this year to fall into extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as living on $1.90 a day or less.

Diminishing remittances are both an outgrowth of the crisis gripping the world and a portent of more trouble ahead. Developing countries account for 60 percent of the world economy on the basis of purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund. Less spending in poorer nations spells less economic growth for the world.

Like the pandemic that has delivered it, the slide in remittances is global. Europe and Central Asia are expected to suffer a fall of nearly 28 percent in the wages sent home from other countries, while sub-Saharan Africa sees a drop of 23 percent. South Asia appears set for a 22 percent decline, while the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean could absorb a reduction of more than 19 percent.

Overall, the pandemic has damaged the earning power of 164 million migrant workers who support at least 800 million relatives in less affluent countries, according to an estimate from the United Nations Network on Migration.

“We are talking about a staggering number of people who are benefiting from these remittances,” said Dilip Ratha, lead economist on migration and remittances at the World Bank in Washington.

Venturing overseas for work is laced with danger, exposing migrant workers to dishonest recruitment agents, exploitative employers, and the physical perils of manual labor. It is also a singularly effective means of upward mobility.

Credit…Sebastian Modak/The New York Times

Households receiving remittances eat better, and are more likely to continue their children’s education rather than pressing them into the work force. Babies born into homes receiving remittances tend to be higher in birth weight.

In some countries, migrant workers can tap into unemployment insurance and other government programs — especially Eastern Europeans from European Union nations who have labored in other member states. But in many countries, migrants operate in gray areas, unprotected by government relief and especially vulnerable to hard times.

“Some people, either naïvely or with good intentions, say this Covid-19 democratizes us all, and we are all exposed to it equally,” said Mahmoud Mohieldin, an Egyptian economist who serves as a United Nations special envoy on financing sustainable development. “This is not true. The impacts are very much disproportionate.”

For families in poor countries, sending a relative abroad to earn money tends to be a collective undertaking. People pool their cash to finance journeys in what amounts to the largest investment they will make in their lives.

The pandemic has turned such ventures into disasters.

Three years ago, Mahammed Heron left his village outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, for work in the energy-rich nation of Qatar, tracing a route pursued by tens of millions of South Asian migrants.

He borrowed 400,000 Bangladeshi taka (about $4,700) from relatives and engaged a local recruitment agent that bought him a plane ticket, secured a work visa and promised him a job. This was a monumental amount of money in Bangladesh, more than twice the national income per capita (about $1,855). His wife, Monowara Begum, was terrified. Her first husband — Mr. Heron’s older brother — had been killed by a drunken driver more than a decade earlier in Saudi Arabia, where he had been working as a hospital janitor.


Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

But if the prospect of her husband venturing to the Persian Gulf was frightening, staying put seemed riskier still.

Her family lived in a shack made of corrugated aluminum that was vulnerable to the torrential rains of the monsoon. They had no running water. Mr. Heron earned perhaps 300 taka (about $3.50) per day working in the surrounding rice paddies. They could rarely afford meat or fish, subsisting on rice and potatoes. Her oldest son had a heart condition that required medicine.

The only way out of poverty was to invest in her children’s education, but tuition payments reached 6,000 taka (more than $70) per year.

“Our financial situation was never good,” Ms. Begum explained in an interview via a video link, as birds chirped loudly in the village. She reluctantly agreed to the plan.


Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

When Mr. Heron landed in Doha in September 2018, the furnace-like heat was not the only shock: The recruitment agency had failed to line up a job. “I was cheated,” he said in an interview by video.

He looked frantically for work, eventually securing a position at a staffing agency that sent him on a variety of assignments — cleaning offices, landscaping and digging into the sandy earth to lay fiber optics cable.

Mr. Heron was paid a monthly salary of 900 Qatari rial (about $250) and assigned a bunk inside a dormitory room he shared with 15 other men, all Bangladeshis.

Every two or three months, he sent home about 30,000 taka (about $350), but it all went toward his debt — still only one-fourth repaid.

Then, in May, with the coronavirus shutting down much of life in Doha, the agency stopped paying the workers, Mr. Heron said. He suffered an asthma flare-up that required hospitalization, absorbing all his cash. He stopped sending money home.

For Bangladesh overall, remittances received from other countries plunged by 23 percent in April compared with a year earlier, and were down by 13 percent in May, according to the nation’s central bank, though June saw an increase.

Schools remain shut in Bangladesh, but whenever they open, Ms. Begum sees no way to afford sending her 16-year-old son, Hasan.


Credit…Salahuddin Ahmed for The New York Times

She has been urging Hasan to find work — perhaps in construction, maybe at an auto repair shop. He has been resisting, preferring to stay at home and read textbooks.

“I want to continue my studies,” he said. He imagines a life as a software engineer. His face lights up as he describes this — a slender teenager, standing shirtless in front of his shack as roosters crow, envisioning himself in a shiny office, leaning over a computer.

Every few days, he and his mother use a smartphone app and a prepaid internet card to talk to Mr. Heron, stranded in the dormitory in Qatar. He is too ill to work, he said, but lacks money to fly home. After another year, the staffing company is contractually obligated to pay for his return flight. He bides his time, hoping his health improves, hoping his pay resumes, hoping his own children escape his fate.

“I dream that my sons will do something in their life,” he said.


Credit…Petr David Josek/Associated Press

In the town of Patzún, Guatemala, Edgar Tzirin’s family used the money he made in his job as a prep cook at a New York soup and sandwich restaurant to erect a new house. Mr. Tzirin earned about $2,000 a month. Every two weeks, he dutifully sent home $500 to $700.

This money proved vital when the coronavirus threw his three sisters out of work. When his mother landed in the hospital — maybe with the coronavirus — he paid for her care.

But in April, with New York in lockdown, Mr. Tzirin lost his job. When his grandfather died the following month, he was unable to send money home for the funeral — a deep wound. He used to speak to his family every two to three days, but he can no longer bear it, receding into isolation and loneliness. He has not told them that he lost his job.

“My family needs me,” he said.

Mr. Tzirin gets up at 5:30 every morning and goes out looking for construction work or odd jobs as a day laborer but usually returns home empty-handed. “There’s nothing,” he said.

He is three months behind on his rent. He contemplates returning to Guatemala for the first time in a decade, but what can he do there?

“It’s a hard experience,” Mr. Tzirin said. “People are getting desperate.”

Many migrant workers are now contending with two emergencies at once — a loss of income combined with the menace of the virus itself.

Mr. Tudor, the Romanian immigrant living in Britain, left his home region of Transylvania when he was in his early 20s. Abandoning a perilous life as a coal miner, he landed first in Spain, where he worked in security. As the global financial crisis plunged the country into a veritable depression in 2009, he moved to Britain, settling in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town of 76,000 people, about 150 miles west of London.

He took care of older people through stints arranged by staffing companies. His most recent job was at a for-profit nursing home called The Heathers. He was making 848 pounds (about $1,070) a week. His wife was cleaning rooms at a hotel, bringing home £1,200 ($1,536) a month.

As the coronavirus emerged, his wife saw her hours reduced. Hospitals began shifting older patients stricken with the virus to nursing homes.


Credit…Justin French for The New York Times

According to Mr. Tudor, by early March, 23 of the 30 rooms at The Heathers were full of coronavirus patients. Within a week, nine were dead, he said. He and his colleagues were supplied only with disposable surgical masks. One colleague demanded more protective gear and was fired. He said during his last week at the facility, the manager placed a woman with dementia who did not have the virus in the same room as someone who did.

“It was horrible,” Mr. Tudor said. “It’s only about business. It’s about money.”

Reached by phone, a part-owner of The Heathers, Bipin Patel, declined to answer questions. “We’re not making any comments,” he said.

Mr. Tudor soon came down with a fever and a cough, forcing him to stop going to work. He twice tested negative for the coronavirus, but has been unable to secure another job.

In recent years, Britain has sharply reduced government support programs for the jobless and those struggling to pay their bills, folding them into a lump sum scheme known as universal credit.

Mr. Flavius has traded his paycheck for a £1,000 ($1,280) monthly universal credit payment, cutting his income roughly in half. His eyeglasses have broken, but he can’t afford to replace them. When the rent came due last month, he paid it only with the help of his mother, back in Romania.

“The world doesn’t know where it’s going,” he said. “No society can handle this situation.”

Nic Wirtz contributed reporting from Antigua, Guatemala, Hari Kumar from New Delhi and Geneva Abdul contributed research from London.

Read More

Posted on

The Great Au Pair Rush

When the au pair decided to change families, she feared she was taking a major risk.

Since the fall, the Colombian woman in her mid-20s had been working in New York as an au pair, one of about 20,000 young people — mostly women — who come to the United States each year to live with families and take care of their children. Her yearlong contract wasn’t set to expire until late 2020, but one morning in mid-June, an argument with her host dad proved to be the breaking point of a tense home environment in quarantine.

“I can’t take these people anymore,” the au pair texted me in Spanish. “I want to get out of here today.” She reported the situation to her local coordinator and decided to leave, giving her two weeks to find a new family or return to Colombia. She hadn’t the slightest clue where she would end up next.

But the woman’s anxiety turned to surprise a few days later when she checked her email — she already had dozens of families across the country asking for interviews. Normally, the demand for au pairs already in the United States is not nearly as high, but something had changed: On June 22, the Trump administration issued an executive order suspending many foreign work visas at least until the end of this year. The order included the J-1 visa program, under which the au pair program, managed by the State Department, is categorized.

While the coronavirus pandemic had already made international travel difficult for many, the visa restrictions confirmed that new au pairs preparing to come to the United States wouldn’t be able to enter the country. The American families expecting them, often with working parents relying on the program as their primary source of child care, have been left scrambling to find replacements.

I spoke to nearly a dozen au pairs now in the country, and read the testimonies of many more on social media. They asked that their names not be used for this story, because they feared retaliation.

Many host parents have taken to unofficial forums on Facebook and other sites as an additional way to search for potential matches. That has created a frenzied social-media rush to woo the dwindling number of au pairs in the country who are still available.

“Pretty much everyone is saying it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get an au pair,” said Erin Burkhart, a high-school teacher and two-time host mom in the Seattle area whose most recent au pair was set to join her family this summer from Germany. “The search process itself is a full-time job. Right now I will email everyone, I will reach out to everyone. I’ve had about 15 video chats in the last week.”

On the other end, while au pairs entering the program might speak with only two or three families in the initial interview process, in-country candidates are now hearing from 10, 20, sometimes closer to 50 prospective families. Even male au pairs, who often find it harder to match, are having an easy time. “Because they know they don’t have options, they are accepting males for their families too,” said an au pair from Brazil. “It’s not a big deal anymore.”

“Now we feel powerful,” the Colombian au pair said. “For once, we have a choice.”

Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Though administered by the State Department, the au pair program is operated by a network of private agencies (Cultural Care, Au Pair Care and Au Pair in America are a few big ones) that are in charge of vetting and matching au pairs with host families before they even set foot in the United States. On the ground, au pairs and host families deal more directly with local child care consultants, or L.C.C.s — regional counselors for the agencies who oversee day-to-day issues that arise in households.

If an in-country au pair wants to rematch, or switch families later on, her request must first be approved by the L.C.C. and the match ultimately approved by the agency.

But many introductory conversations are often carried out via unofficial channels — Facebook, WhatsApp and personal referrals between au pairs and families — to streamline the process. In recent weeks, these unofficial networks have become inundated.

Many in-country au pairs are now telling interested hosts that they are only willing to match in exchange for certain assurances, such as a personal car or payment upward of $400 a week. The minimum stipend for au pairs is $195.75 a week for a maximum of 45 hours of work, which is set by the State Department.

Host families have taken note of the new dynamic, too: Perusing some Facebook groups in mid-June, I found posts announcing benefits like unlimited public transportation passes, new cars, access to beach houses and skydiving trips, and double the pay. “We’re offering a 2000 USD sign-on bonus,” one parent wrote.

Not all host families are advertising perks, though, and not all au pairs are seeking them out. Coming from difficult working conditions with her first host family — including verbal abuse, additional chores like housecleaning and dog-grooming, and long hours for no extra pay — the Colombian au pair’s top priority was finding a family that would be the best fit.

Many host families feel similarly that the match must be right. “Offering benefits is fine, but people should not lose sight of the spirit of the program, which is cultural exchange and having an au pair join your family,” Ms. Burkhart said. “You’re going to eat dinner with this person regularly, spend holidays and vacations together for a year. It’s important to find a good fit.”

The current shortage of in-country au pairs caused by the one-two punch of quarantine and visa restrictions has further highlighted the lack of affordable child care in America, to the point where young foreigners expecting a year or two of cultural exchange have become lifelines, often unintentionally, for two-earner couples hoping to keep both their jobs.

When the order was officially announced on June 22, au pairs from around the world, preparing to leave home for a year or longer in the United States, saw their dreams crushed.

“I was honestly heartbroken,” said Kristina Kobzeva, 23, from Kazakhstan. “My mom told me that I can’t wait so much time until next year, that I’ll have to quit the program and get married if the borders won’t be reopened this year for au pairs.”

Au pairs pay fees to participate in the program, navigating a complex web of foreign recruiters, satellite offices and U.S. agencies that vary on a case-by-case basis. Including expenses associated with the J-1 visa application, the total out-of-pocket enrollment cost for au pairs usually hovers between $1,000 and $2,000, much of which is often nonrefundable. “I worked at least three months nonstop, two jobs, in order to save the money for the program,” Ms. Kobzeva added. “Now I’m literally in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do.”

Enrollment for American host families is more straightforward: Between agency program fees and required au pair expenses (such as weekly stipends, travel and food, and up to $500 toward a mandatory education requirement), the total minimum cost of the program is around $20,000 a year, regardless of the number of children in the family. If a family pays only the minimum, it’s affordable when compared with traditional child care options.


Credit…Ting Shen for The New York Times

When the match is a good one, families and au pairs can come away with long-lasting relationships. “Child care is one aspect of it, but we’ve really appreciated the cultural exchange component,” said Dawn Gile, a lawyer and host mom in Maryland. “We were going to travel to Europe to go visit our former au pairs. We keep in touch with them, our girls had this exposure to foreign languages, culture, food — they’ve been so enriched by the au pair program.”

But the primary motivation, by far, for most families to host an au pair is the flexible and affordable child care. Now, as the coronavirus threatens to keep schools and day cares closed, and as traditional babysitting becomes complicated in a socially distanced world, live-in child care is even more appealing. That’s especially the case for essential workers — physicians and other health professionals, in particular — who rely on au pair support to maintain long hours during the pandemic.

Nearly a month after the initial rules were issued, the State Department announced that some au pairs — namely, those caring for the children of medical professionals involved in the fight against Covid-19, or children with medical or other special needs — would be granted an exception to the visa restrictions rule and be allowed to enter the country.

Military families, often on the move, are also among those most affected by the rule. “It’s frustrating in a lot of ways because military spouses try so hard to maintain a career despite the impact of their spouse’s service,” said Ms. Gile, whose husband is in the military and who also serves as president of the Military Spouse JD Network. Now that her next au pair is barred from entering the country, Ms. Gile fears the lack of child care will affect her ability to keep working. “This is just another setback in trying to maintain a career,” she said.

“There are a lot of parents who, because of this, will have to quit their jobs,” Ms. Burkhart added.

Rachel Block, a former World Bank economist and experienced host mom, put it more bluntly: “The main substitute is women working less and having to pull back from the work force.

There are fears that the rush of perks offered by families might cloud au pairs’ ability to select kind and properly qualified hosts. While many au pairs are treated with respect, many aren’t, as recent investigations and court cases have shown.

“Very soon, au pairs realize that while you can have a great, amazing relationship with a family, they are your boss, and you are their employee,” added the Colombian au pair. “You are not part of the family.”

Au pairs have reported working far more than 45 hours per week, and being berated by host parents; some have seen their food restricted, or their activities monitored by surveillance cameras. Afraid of being sent home early, many suffer in silence.

A Brazilian au pair in New Jersey who said she was verbally abused daily by her host’s children and was “basically a maid,” was afraid to ask for a switch. “There’s a lot of stories about girls getting kicked out of the house when they ask for a rematch,” she said.

When she reported the situation to her local agency counselor, she was told in an email to work things out or she would likely be sent home. Only after the host mom approved the rematch a month later, the au pair said, did the agency agree to facilitate a change.

These experiences are far from uncommon. A 2018 investigation by several labor-rights groups argued that the J-1 au pair program is a work program with little real opportunity for cultural exchange, and that au pairs should be protected as domestic workers.

“This is an employment relationship. The law has upheld that to be the case,” said Rocío Ávila, a senior lawyer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of the co-authors of the report. In December 2019, a Massachusetts court ruled that minimum-wage laws applied to au pairs in that state. As a result, in Massachusetts, the weekly cost of a full-time au pair rose from the roughly $200 minimum stipend ($4.35 per hour for 45 hours) to more than $500 in weekly wages, after deductions for meals and lodging.

“I think it’s the sponsor’s role to set the expectations of both the au pair and the host family,” said Jean Quinn, the director of Au Pair in America, an agency. “What we want are both families and au pairs to come with the right expectations. It doesn’t do anybody any good if that’s not the case,” she added. “I think we do a very good job at making it clear that this has to work for both sides in order for it to be a successful placement.”

Also key to au pair protections, labor advocates and some host parents like Ms. Block have argued, are more government regulation, know-your-rights education for incoming au pairs, and a more streamlined system for complaints, independent of private agencies.

As the matching frenzy continued, the Colombian au pair narrowed her dozens of options to just a handful of families. After her fourth day of nonstop interviews, she was triumphant. “I have a family!” she announced, smiling from ear to ear.

Ms. Burkhart was one of a few host parents who could say the same. “We just signed our au pair tonight :)” she wrote in an email.

The au pair was glad, in the end, that she hadn’t let herself be wooed by promises of cars or beach houses or more money, which could have been deceiving — because even for a complicated program that involves so many different actors, everything ultimately comes down to the quality of the match. “My sense is that this is a family that’s really going to care about me,” she said. And because she was here now, she could work with that.

Jordan Salama (@jordansalama19) is a writer whose essays and stories have appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, National Geographic and Smithsonian.

Posted on

Migrant Farmworkers Whose Harvests Feed Europe Are Blocked at Borders

PARIS — When Europe tightened its borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, France’s biggest farmers sounded an alarm: The workers they rely on from other countries to harvest much of the nation’s food could no longer make the trip.The concern is widespread. In Britain, farmers are …

Read More