25 Mar 2021
Today we get to know Zuyi Chen, a Chinese-Canadian software engineer who works in the Chicago area and recently left one job at legal analytics company to become a full-time engineer at a finance firm in Chicago. This interview is part of our series in collaboration with Data & Society featuring people who build and work with tech, and who are organizing in unique, context-specific ways to build worker power in the tech industry. In conversation with Data & Society Digital Content Associate Natalie Kerby and TWC volunteer Danny Spitzberg, Zuyi describes how the pandemic amplified the precarity around his immigration status.
The Worker’s Perspective
By TWC and Data & Society
Natalie Kerby: To get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Zuyi Chen: My name is Zuyi Chen. I’m currently 23 years old. I’ve been working at a tech company in Chicago for around the past two years now. For most of that period I was first on something called a TN work visa. Then after that I switched on to an H-1B work visa. And recently I just converted to a green card after like a decade.
Natalie: Congratulations! Can you tell us the difference between those three statuses?
Zuyi: The TN isn’t necessarily a work visa. It’s more like a work authorization, and it’s only meant for Canadians and citizens of Mexico. Essentially, it’s a three-year limit and you’re supposed to renew it after three years, but it doesn’t allow you to migrate to the US like applying for a green card would. H-1B is very similar to a TN visa. You have to renew it after three years, but it’s got a 60-year total term limit, and it does allow you to apply for a green card. The TN and H-1B are both tied to your employment. So if you lose your job while on either, you’re given the choice of either finding a job within 60 days that will continue to sponsor you, or you’ll unfortunately be asked to leave the country. The green card allows me to stay and work in the US indefinitely, as long as each year I’m in the US for around half the year.
Natalie: I’m curious how your relationship to your job changed throughout each of those stages.
Zuyi: When I was on the TN visa, because it’s the one that’s the most likely to be taken away, I was really scared. Or rather, I had limited communication with my manager. I definitely put in a decent amount of overtime just to make sure that they think that I’m a good worker. Once I was on H-1B, there was a little more stability. I became a little comfortable and let some of my coworkers know about my visa status. Before, I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing that information. Now that I’m on the green card, I’m still very hesitant about who to share my status with, primarily because I have heard comments of people saying, Oh, you exemplify the correct way to do it. And that doesn’t sit right with me.
Natalie: I want to back up a little bit and ask why you decided to work in the tech sector.
Zuyi: I wanted to stay in the US after I graduated college, and if I didn’t work in the tech sector or a STEM-related field, I wouldn’t be allowed to work here in the US after I graduated. My family is here. My family moved to the US around a decade ago, and throughout this whole process, even when I was going through college, I didn’t have a green card. So, if after I graduated, I couldn’t find a job and be sponsored, I actually would have to leave this country and everyone I’ve ever known and go back to Canada by myself.
Natalie: What was your experience when you found out that you’d be working from home during the pandemic?
Zuyi: I was really scared. The number one thing that was going through my mind at that point was that if I was laid off, I know for sure in the current job environment, I would not be able to find employment in 60 days. I wouldn’t be able to get unemployment because I would only have 60 days in the country. I was thinking about how to get all the cash I can and hopefully find some work in Canada. I was in this limbo of sorts, not knowing what’s going to happen until almost half-a-year later where my company announced that the revenue was in a healthier spot and we’re probably not going to have to lay anyone off.
Natalie: I’m curious what type of messaging your company gave you at the beginning of the pandemic that might’ve increased that anxiety. I’m sure some places were like, we’re going to be fine, but it sounds like that’s not what you were hearing in those first six months.
Zuyi: Yeah, they were silent on this. The underlying message was we need to tighten our belts. We need to cut things we can cut. I think a lot of contractors were laid off actually. I figured that the contractors would be the first to go and then it might be people on H-1B since we wouldn’t really need severance, etc.
Natalie: I’m curious about how you and your coworkers figured out what “tightening our belt” actually meant.
Zuyi: My direct senior manager actually manages a good majority of our contractors. I knew that there’s always been an initiative to transfer some of the stuff from contractors to internal teams. But when COVID happened, immediately the contracting team was dispersed and all their work was evenly divided among the teams that my senior manager led. So, as a person who was below him, my team received some of this work, and that led to the realization that tightening our belt on one front meant laying off anyone that wasn’t a fixed cost, like contractors or other variables.
We stopped hiring new people, which also is a very scary thing. I assumed that if my company wasn’t hiring, then only the very big tech giants were. But I was reading on the news how they had actually kind of stopped their hiring process as well. I thought, if I’m next on the chopping block, I know very well that I’m not going to find another job.
Natalie: Being on an H-1B visa seems to have really complicated your relationship with your employer. I’d be curious to hear about what your relationship with your coworkers was like before the pandemic and what kinds of conversations you were having then. In any office, there are those whisper networks of people sharing information about job grievances or sharing salary information to create equity in the workforce. How did your workforce navigate those things before?
Zuyi: At least the way that I saw it, there wasn’t really any of that amongst people that were on H-1B. An example that I saw that really surprised me was when, in a public Slack channel, a coworker of mine commented that he didn’t like some of the recent changes in the company. And he said, you know, I can always find another job. His manager was also in that channel. I was really shocked that he would say something so openly in front of his own manager. For people that were on a visa, I didn’t see anyone message at all about work-related stuff or any discontentment in any of the public Slack channels that I followed or in the day-to-day conversations. In the office, when I had a chance, I would just go talk to coworkers who I knew were on H-1B after work. I would sneak up to them and say like, I have some questions. Otherwise, everyone just sort of kept their head down.
Natalie: With the pandemic, did any of that change? Because all of a sudden everyone was experiencing potential job insecurity, stress, and everyone was still working. It seems like a lot of people started conversations in their workplaces about extra space, time to rest, time to process. I’m curious how that unfolded for you.
Zuyi: I talk to one coworker because I know he’s in the same situation as me. But online I couldn’t really find out if anyone else was on an H-1B anymore. It’s hard to make that conversation, to ping them and ask them. I was like, what if they weren’t on it? — Then I made a bad assumption. What if they weren’t comfortable sharing with me? Whereas in real life I could kind of banter around and say something like, Hey man, have you heard about what’s happening? Especially with immigration and, if they were very aware of it, then I might be able to make some leeway. But it is just super difficult to talk with people that are new.
I don’t know if it’s well-known, but with COVID-19, former president Donald Trump gave a list of executive orders that made it pretty difficult for people to be on a work visa. Specifically, the provision that was central to my company was that he would basically ban all H-1B holders from getting a green card, unless they went through some other metric that determined that they were not competing with any American nationals for their position. That metric would have added at least a year to the green card process. So I actually did see a lot of people ask who was on H-1B. Because they were very scared like what is the company thinking about? Is this company still willing to support us if something like this happened? Because we know it’s going to be an expensive process. And this was all during a hiring freeze in efforts to cut down on spending. So it was really worrisome if, number one, the company would even sponsor someone for an H-1B, and secondly, if there was new legislation passed, would the company also be willing to pay for these new procedures.
Natalie: It sounds like it’s been difficult to speak to coworkers about your visa status, and working from home added another barrier to that. Where do you find all of the information instead about changing visa rules?
Zuyi: There are good communal resources that are country specific. I follow a Chinese forum, the biggest one of international students from China and it’s mostly centered around immigration. I check that daily to see what’s going on. Besides that, I actually also follow a lot of Indian sources because those are kind of like the two biggest countries that were dealing with issues with the green card process.
Natalie: With your immigration status, you’re navigating so many power dynamics that sometimes the risk of speaking out outweighs the benefit. In an ideal world, what would solidarity look like?
Zuyi: I’m not 100 percent sure. What I do think solidarity would look like would be if a company did have to lay off its employees, then management would have the goodness to perhaps keep people who are on a work visa for slightly longer. I’ve seen it done a lot of the time in a very big tech company, like Google or Microsoft. They’ll actually space out your severance, so that you’re still counted as being employed during that time. So instead of just the two months from the day where you lose your job to find a new position, you’re given the severance period, plus the two months after to find a new job, and it can be significant. If all companies did something like that, I think that would be a big improvement.
Other than that, I’ve seen a lot of engineers who are on H-1B, regardless of seniority, feeling weak in terms of saying no to work-related things. I see a lot of people working overtime and the mindset of managers is how much they can push someone. I think it’s common knowledge that you can always push someone who’s dependent on your job a lot more. If managers can understand that if I always tell the person on a visa to do this and they always do it, but I don’t ever think about whether they’re working overtime or they never say no to me, maybe I should consider why are they never saying no?
Danny: As part of this conversation, we want to know, what can we do to help you and how can we help each other?
Zuyi: I feel like the anti-immigrant rhetoric of “them taking our jobs” has gotten a lot stronger, especially towards Chinese people in the US. I am Chinese, and I think that a lot of people see China as the reason behind the virus being in the US right now. People have also always been saying that the immigrants take jobs meant for Americans, and that affects white collar workers or H-1B workers, especially in tech.
Everyone says H-1B workers are low paid, they’re grunt workers, disposable, we only hire them to be cheap, they’re taking our jobs. I wish that rhetoric would stop. It sounds like the immigrants are purposefully trying to harm people, whereas the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
We’re people that are perhaps even more scared than the average American of losing our jobs, and a lot of the times people who come here get paid less, and they’re usually overworked. They’re not treated well by management or coworkers. I wish that people would be more understanding. We’re not evildoers here to take your livelihood. Most of the time, we’re just trying to get ourselves into a better situation. And it’s really unfortunate that the system has allowed corporations to take advantage of the people in general — not just me, but also other tech workers who are non-H-1B. They pit us against each other when I feel like a better solution would be to have us understand each other and do better for all of us.
Advice to fellow workers:
We asked Zuyi what he might say to other workers in a similar situation. Here’s what he said:
“It might be a good idea to gather a community around people at your workplace who are also on H-1B. Having solidarity and feeling supported by your co-workers is very important. That could make the difference between managers extending severance pay periods out of the goodness of their heart, and doing so because that’s what workers want.”
This interview has been edited and condensed by Kaylen Sanders, Tech Workers Coalition volunteer. Read more about our series here.