The latest executive order from President Donald Trump targeting high-skilled foreign workers in the U.S. decrees that those holding H-1B visas can't have roles on federal contracts in lieu of American-born employees.
Under the order issued Aug. 3, contractors may need to prove that they are not using H-1B workers to replace U.S. citizens on contracts with the federal government.
The order also extends to services being “offshored” to other countries.
“When employers trade American jobs for temporary foreign labor … it reduces opportunities for United States workers in a manner inconsistent with the role guest-worker programs are meant to play" in the U.S. economy,” the order states.
The Trump administration edict follows a June 22 executive order aimed at restraining the number of "foreign nationals" working in the U.S. by suspending new visas, including the H-1B, H-2B, J and L programs. There were about 400,000 H1-B visa holders in 2019, mostly in the information technology sector, but it's not known how many work on federal contracts.
In the run up to the November election, the administration also has floated further restrictions on H1-B visas and an overall "merit-based" approach for immigrant workers, the details of which are unclear.
Jeff Urbanchuk, vice president of the American Council of Engineering Cos., says the latest order, like the previous one that suspended various visa categories, fails to take into consideration the unique challenges facing America’s engineering sector, with infrastructure design and construction seen as a key economic stimulus in post COVID-19 recovery.
“U.S. firms seek more H-1B visa holders, not because they are looking to displace American workers, but because doing so is essential to fill the desperate shortage of engineering talent in this country,” he said in a statement. “The administration needs to recognize this reality, especially now with the immediate need to fuel an economic recovery that will be designed by engineers.”
The order calls on the heads of agencies and executive departments to review hiring practices on contracts awarded in fiscal 2018 and 2019. Reports on these reviews are due by Nov. 10.
The order also calls on the secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security to “take action … to protect United States workers from any adverse effects on wages and working conditions caused by the employment of H-1B visa holders at job sites” within 45 days.
Brian Turmail, Associated General Contractors vice president of public affairs, says it is unclear at this time what impact the new order could have on construction firms. “We’re closely reviewing the executive order and we’re going to be monitoring how federal agencies go about implementing it,” he says.
In one immediate action under the order, President Trump removed on Aug. 3 two members of the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors, citing the board’s recent decision to outsource work to other countries.
TVA, a federally owned corporation that operates 72 power generation stations in the southeastern U.S., recently announced layoffs of U.S. workers along with the outsourcing of 20% of its technology jobs.
Trump threatened to remove more board members if TVA "does not move swiftly to reverse their decision,” he said.
Gay Henson, president of Engineering Association IFPTE Local 1937, the union representing some TVA workers, said in a statement that “the decision to send work abroad and bring replacement workers in through the use of H-1B visas is a clear violation of TVA’s mission to create jobs in the Tennessee Valley—and generate electricity.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said in a statement that “TVA may have shown poor judgment hiring foreign companies during a pandemic, but, on most counts, it does a very good job of producing large amounts of low-cost, reliable electricity."
But according to an Aug. 4 report in the Chattanooga Times Free Press, TVA said it is suspending the layoffs of about 100 workers set in two phases through October in "non critical" software support roles while it reviews the Trump order.