BALCA Reverses Labor Certification Denials By Upholding Real World Job Advertisements

Late last year, just in time to ruin the holidays for those affected, the Department of Labor (DOL) started a round of PERM denials setting forth another new and previously unheard of reason for denial. Despite having certified these types of PERMs for years (lulling practitioners into another false sense of security), the DOL started denying PERM applications where the employers, in their PERM recruitment, used terms such as “Competitive,” “Depends on Experience” (DOE), “Negotiable,” “Will Discuss With Applicant,” “Other,” or similar verbiage in lieu of stating the offered salary.

To provide some background, an employer has to conduct a good faith recruitment of the labor market in order to obtain labor certification for a foreign national employee. Obtaining labor certification is often the first step when an employer wishes to sponsor a foreign national employee for permanent residence. The PERM regulations do not require the employer to state the offered salary in any of its recruitment. In its list of frequently asked PERM questions (FAQs) on the Office of Foreign Labor Certification’s website, question number 5 under the heading of “Advertisement Content” is asked and answered as follows:

Does the offered wage need to be included in the advertisements?

No, the offered wage does not need to be included in the advertisement, but if a wage rate is included, it can not be lower than the prevailing wage rate.

The Preamble to PERM Regulations, 69 Fed. Reg. at 77347 also discusses the elimination of the requirement that the wage offer must be included in advertisement.

In filing a PERM application, the employer, under 20 C.F.R. §656.10 (c), must certify to the conditions of employment listed on the Application for Permanent Employment Certification (1) “[t]he offered wage equals or exceeds the prevailing wage determined pursuant to §656.40 and §656.41” and (8) ‘[t]he job opportunity has been and is clearly open to any U.S. worker.” And 20 C.F.R. §656.24(b)(2) requires the Certifying Officer (CO) to make a determination as to whether there “is in the United States a worker who is able, willing, qualified and available for and at the place of the job opportunity.” Using these regulations as authority for some of its denials, the DOL, after acknowledging the fact that the employer is not required to list a wage in its advertisements, goes on to state that the employer’s indication of “Competitive,” “Depends on Experience (DOE),” “Negotiable,” “Other,” etc. is in fact an expression of a salary and that any discussion concerning wages must sufficiently inform applicants of the job opportunity outlined in the PERM application. The DOL claims that terms like “Depends on Experience” and “Negotiable” could be vague and could place a potential burden on the US worker to reasonably determine the wage rate for the position or could indicate that an applicant’s experience might potentially cause the employer to offer a salary which is lower than the salary offered to the foreign worker. Incredulously, according to the DOL, a term like a “Will Discuss With Applicant” could prevent a potentially qualified US applicant from making an informed decision on whether he/she would be interested in the actual job opportunity, and could deter a number of such applicants from applying. The denials claim that the employers, by listing terms that potentially deterred US workers from applying, did not adequately test the labor market.

Under the PERM regulations at 20 CFR §656.17(e)(1)(i)(A) and §656.17(e)(2)(i), the employer’s job order for both professional and nonprofessional occupations must be placed with the State Workforce Agency (AWA) serving the area of intended employment for a period of 30 days. But one of the problems many employers face is with SWAs that require the employer to list an offered wage and to make a selection from a drop down menu under “Pay Comments” choosing from comments which include “DOE,” “Will Discuss with Applicant,” “Commission Only,” “Not Applicable,” etc. The DOL has been issuing denials in cases where, for example, the employer listed the offered salary as $0 or $1 in an effort to get past this requirement and then indicated “Will Discuss With Applicant” under the pay comments. As ludicrous as it is to suggest that any US worker would be deterred from applying for the offered position simply because the offered wage was listed as $0 – which obviously could never be the actual case – this is exactly what the DOL suggests in its denials.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) did raise this issue with the DOL in one of its stakeholders meetings last year informing the DOL that many of its state job order systems, and many job search websites and other recruitment sources require the use of, or they automatically insert, the terms that are now the cause of the new denials. The DOL only agreed to review the issue and may possibly issue an FAQ in the future. But they declined to suspend further denials or reopen past denials.

Many motions to reconsider have been filed and remain pending. The Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals (BALCA) has just issued a couple of decisions that will hopefully help shed light on how those pending motions should be decided. In Bahwan Cybertek, Inc. 2012-PER-01147 (Feb. 18, 2016) the employer filed a PERM application indicating that the offered wage was $99,500. The PERM was audited. The employer submitted copies of its SWA job order which showed that the employer had listed the minimum pay and the maximum pay as $1 per year. Under “Pay Details” the employer had indicated “Competitive Salary. Will be discussed with the candidate.” The CO denied certification finding that the job order listed a wage rate lower than the prevailing wage in violation of 20 C.F.R. §§656.10(c)(8) and 656.17(f)(7). In a request for reconsideration the employer stated that it normally does not list wages in its recruitment and the PERM rules do not require it but that the Massachusetts SWA’s online job order system asked for minimum and maximum pay for the advertised position and so the employer entered $1 so that the system would accept the posting but added the pay comments as clarification making it clear that the salary was not $1. The CO still found that the statements “competitive salary” and “will be discussed with the candidate” were “not demonstrably specific enough to overcome the potential chilling affect [sic] arising from advertising $1 as an annual salary.” The employer appealed to BALCA.

BALCA simply pointed out that the regulation at 20 C.F.R. § 656.17(f) provides that “[a]dvertisements placed in newspapers of general circulation or in professional journals before filing the Application for Permanent Employment Certification must … [n]ot contain wages or terms and conditions of employment that are less favorable than those offered to the alien” and that, by its own terms, this regulation only applies to advertisements in newspapers or professional journals, and does not regulate the content of SWA job orders.

But with regard to whether or not the job opportunity had been clearly open to any US worker as the employer attested to under 20 C.F.R. §656.10(c)(8), one of the grounds for denial being used in the slew of recent denials discussed above, BALCA confirmed that stating a wage rate below the actual wage offer for the job definitely calls into question whether the job opportunity is indeed open to US workers. However, BALCA found that in the instant case, the employer’s indication of a wage rate of $1 was obviously a placeholder based on a generic data field in the SWA job order and was clearly not intended to reflect the actual wage rate. BALCA found that that “no reasonable job seeker would have been discouraged from applying for the job, especially since it was clarified that the employer is offering a competitive salary and that the salary was subject to discussion.

Similarly, as in the recent denials, where an employer has indicated a salary of $0 and had indicated that the salary will be discussed with the applicant, no reasonable job seeker would have been deterred by that.

In another case, Global TPA LLC, 2012-PER-00847 (Feb. 18, 2016), the offered Project Manager position required 4 years of specific experience which the employer detailed on the ETA Form 9089. Upon audit, the CO discovered that the employer had advertised on a website, as one of the three additional forms of recruitment required for professional positions under 20 C.F.R. § 656.17(e)(1)(ii), indicating that the Project Manager position requires 4-5 years of experience. The CO listed this as one of its three reasons for denial. The employer filed a motion to reconsider but the CO upheld its denial and the case went up to BALCA. BALCA referenced its en banc decision in Symantec Corp., 2011-PER-1856 (July 30, 2014) which I previously discussed here. BALCA pointed out that under Symantec the additional professional recruitment only requires documentation of recruitment for the occupation involved in the application and not recruitment for the particular job opportunity at issue. Therefore, the fact that the employer’s website posting stated 4-5 years of experience as opposed to 4 years of experience as listed on the PERM application did not violate the regulations.  In a footnote, BALCA pointed out that the CO in this case had only cited 20 C.F.R. §656.17(f)(6) as a ground for denial in regard to the discrepancy between the website posting and the ETA Form 9089 in regard to the experience required. BALCA pointed out that its decision is not an opinion on whether the website posting may have been in conflict with 20 C.F.R. §656.10(c)(8) which requires that the employer certify that the job opportunity has been and is clearly open to any U.S. worker.

In any event, even if BALCA declined, in that case, to state that the job opportunity was nevertheless clearly open to US workers, it doesn’t mean that the argument can’t still be made. Under Symantec, the additional forms of recruitment can represent real world alternatives and can advertise for the occupation involved in the application rather than for the job opportunity involved in the application as is required for the newspaper advertisement. Therefore, when it comes to one of these forms of recruitment, an employer’s use of terms like “Competitive,” “Depends on Experience” (DOE), “Negotiable,” “Will Discuss With Applicant,” etc. does not take away from the employer’s advertisement of the occupation and is therefore not in violation of any PERM regulation. BALCA specifically stated in Bahwan Cybertek that no reasonable job seeker would have been discouraged from applying due to the use of such terms. And to state what is probably obvious, someone that would read such terms and be left so confused as to be deterred from applying is quite likely not qualified.

After its slew of denials starting late last year and the stream of motions to reconsider that must have resulted, the DOL’s ultimate stance on this issue remains to be seen. Anecdotal and unscientific evidence seems to indicate that they have stopped or slowed down the issuing of these types of denials.

Nevertheless, going forward, it would be wise to stay away from usage of any of the “problem terms” indicated above to the extent possible.

The Opportunity to Be Heard: Why New DHS Proposed Regulations Regarding I-140 Petitions Should Incorporate and Expand Upon the Rule of Mantena v. Johnson

As discussed in a previous post on this blog by Cyrus D. Mehta, DHS recently promulgated a proposed rule entitled “Retention of EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 Immigrant Workers and Program Improvements Affecting High Skilled Nonimmigrant Workers”. One of the key aspects of this proposed rule, which as discussed in Cyrus’s blog post has disappointed many with its narrowness in various respects, relates to the status of I-140 petitions which a petitioning employer may cease to support. For the reasons I will explain, this aspect of the proposed rule, too, does not go far enough.

The proposed rule will make clear through amendments to 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2) that an I-140 petition will continue to confer a priority date unless it is revoked because of fraud or willful misrepresentation, invalidation or revocation of the underlying labor certification, or “A determination by USCIS that petition approval was in error”, as proposed 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2)(iv) states. Even an I-140 petition that is withdrawn, for example, would continue to confer its priority date on all subsequent petitions filed for that beneficiary. In addition, withdrawal of the I-140 petition by the petitioning employer, or termination of the employer’s business, would only lead to revocation of the petition, per proposed 8 CFR 205.1(a)(3)(iii)(C) and (D), if such withdrawal or termination were to occur less than 180 days after approval of the I-140 petition. Otherwise, in the face of a withdrawal or termination of the employer’s business after those 180 days had passed, the petition would remain valid indefinitely. Thus, even a petition which an employer tries to withdraw after 180 days have passed could, under the proposed rule, be used as the basis for portability under INA §204(j) as enacted by the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (“AC21”), which, as discussed in numerous previous posts on this blog, provides the ability to proceed with employment-based adjustment based on a different job offer to that which underlay the I-140 so long as it is in a same or similar occupation and the adjustment application has been pending for 180 days.

While these provisions provide some insurance against a petitioning employer deliberately or inadvertently undermining §204(j) portability, however, they do not go far enough to accomplish that aim. It appears from the proposed rule that in making its determination whether “petition approval was in error”, to quote again from proposed 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2)(iv), and so should no longer confer a priority date, USCIS would look to the I-140 petitioner for further information, even though that petitioner might lack any interest in providing it. Similarly, the rules regarding revocation of an I-140 petition on notice have not been changed by the proposed rule, and presumably would again involve notice to the petitioner. A hostile petitioner who would have wished to withdraw a petition, or a petitioner which had innocently gone out of business, could give rise to a revocation by failing to respond to notice from USCIS, and in so doing undermine the exercise of §204(j) portability.

This is not merely a theoretical concern. A recent precedential opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Mantena v. Johnson, 809 F.3d 721 (2d Cir. 2015), published on December 30, 2015, demonstrates how this problem can arise under the current regulations.

The plaintiff in Mantena had been the beneficiary of an I-140 petition filed by Vision Systems Group (VSG). Roughly two years after filing her I-485 application for adjustment of status in July 2007, she sent a letter to USCIS requesting to exercise portability and substitute as a successor employer CNC Consulting, Inc. Nearly a year after that, the president of VSG pled guilty to mail fraud in connection with a different petition, which led USCIS to believe that all VSG petitions might be fraudulent. USCIS therefore sent Notices of Intent to Revoke (NOIRs) regarding, it appears, many or all VSG I-140 petitions, including Mantena’s. The NOIR for Mantena’s petition went unanswered – possibly because Mantena had, at that point, not worked for VSG in three years – so USCIS revoked the I-140 petition and then denied Mantena’s I-485.

Following repeated attempts to resolve the issue by filing motions, Mantena brought a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that the revocation of the I-140 petition and subsequent denial of her I-485 had violated the relevant regulations and deprived her of constitutionally protected due process rights. The district court ruled against her, but on appeal the Second Circuit ruled that USCIS had been required to notify either Mantena, or possibly her successor employer CNC, of the NOIR.

Under the INA as amended by AC21, the Second Circuit found, USCIS could not, when it was contemplating revocation of an I-140, notify only the former employer of an I-140 beneficiary who had already exercised portability to leave that employer. As the Second Circuit found,

By placing beneficiaries and successor employers in a position of either blind faith in the original petitioner’s goodwill and due diligence or a forced and continued relationship with the now-disinterested and perhaps antagonistic original petitioner, such a scheme would completely undermine the aims of job flexibility that those amendments sought to create.

Mantena, slip op. at 28-29. The Second Circuit in Mantena remanded to the district court for further consideration of whether the required notice should have gone to Mantena, CNC as her successor employer, or both, but held that in any event some such additional notice was required.

Mantena is not the first case to confront this sort of fact pattern. As discussed by Cyrus D. Mehta in his October 2015 post on this blog, “Don’t You Dare Yank My Precious I-140 Petition Without Telling Me!”, similar facts have been the subject of appellate decisions in the Ninth Circuit, Sixth Circuit, and Eleventh Circuit, as well as an ongoing appeal in the Seventh Circuit. The Second Circuit’s decision in Mantena does a particularly good job, however, of explaining why additional notice of proposed revocation of an I-140 petition is required.

USCIS has the opportunity, in the final revisions to its proposed rule, to clarify and expand upon this holding of Mantena. The final amended regulations should provide that when an I-140 petition has been approved for more than 180 days, or an I-485 based on an I-140 petition has been pending for more than 180 days, the beneficiary of the I-140 petition has the right to receive and respond to any notice regarding potential revocation of the I-140 petition. This will safeguard the job flexibility interests which, as the Second Circuit noted, the AC21 permanent portability provisions were designed to secure in the first place. And it will do so without unduly burdening successor employers, who may be willing only to hire their new employee but not to become too deeply enmeshed in the immigration paperwork and respond to notice regarding an I-140 petition.

Without the addition of Mantena’s rule, the current proposed regulations would leave I-140 beneficiaries “in a position of either blind faith in the original petitioner’s goodwill and due diligence or a forced and continued relationship with the now-disinterested and perhaps antagonistic original petitioner,” Mantena, slip op. at 28-29. A petitioner who is no longer interested, may no longer be in business, or may actively wish harm to the I-140 beneficiary, could quite likely fail to respond to an NOIR, leaving USCIS with the mistaken impression that a petition has been approved in error. This would, in those cases, destroy the benefits of stability that the proposed rule’s changes to 8 CFR 204.5(e)(2) and 8 CFR 205.1(a)(3)(iii)(C) and (D) are intended to produce.

Of course, as Mantena itself held, this sort of notice may in fact be mandated by the statute, whether USCIS explicitly mentions it in the regulations or not. But it would be much more efficient for USCIS to incorporate this notice into the express terms of the regulations, rather than leaving the details to the vagaries of case-by-case litigation in different circuits.

USCIS has, in the past, sometimes acquiesced by memorandum in the employment-immigration-related holding of a Court of Appeals. In a July 15, 2015, memorandum, for example, USCIS accepted the decision of the Third Circuit in Shalom Pentecostal Church v. Acting Secretary of DHS striking down regulatory provisions that required qualifying experience for an I-360 religious worker petition to have been gained in “lawful status”, which the Third Circuit had found to be ultra vires the statute. USCIS could take a similar route with regard to Mantena, which would be much better than nothing. But especially given that regulations on a related topic are being promulgated anyway, the best solution would be for a Mantena-style requirement of notice to an I-140 beneficiary to be incorporated into those new regulations.

As the Supreme Court has explained, “The fundamental requisite of due process of law is the opportunity to be heard.” Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 267 (1970) (quoting Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385, 394 (1914)). USCIS should amend the new proposed I-140 rules to provide this opportunity to I-140 beneficiaries.

A Trap For The Unwary: Equivalent Degrees And Alternate Requirements In Labor Certification Applications

When a foreign national has a three year degree instead of a four year degree, or has no degree, and is able to establish an equivalent degree through a combination of education and work experience, or only through work experience, it is important that the PERM labor certification application be carefully drafted. While an equivalent degree might pass muster for an H-1B visa, it will not always for a labor certification and the subsequent I-140 immigrant visa petition.

20 CFR §656.17(h) requires that an alternative requirement must be substantially equivalent to the primary requirement of the job opportunity in a labor certification application. If the foreign national does not meet the primary job requirement, and while already employed by the sponsoring employer, only meets the alternative requirement, the labor certification will be denied unless the application states that any suitable combination of education, training or experience is acceptable (emphasis added). 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(ii) essentially adopts the holding of BALCA in Francis Kellogg, 1994-INA-00465, although in that case the primary and alternative requirements, namely, experience as a cook or salad maker, were not substantially equivalent, thereby necessitating that the employer accept any suitable combination of education, training or experience. In contrast to Kellogg, 20 CFR §656.17(h) requires consideration of this language even if there is substantial equivalence between the primary and alternative requirement.

Fortunately, if this language does not appear on the form, it is no longer fatal and practitioners can challenge a denial if the sole reason for the denial was the failure to insert this “magic language” on the application. In Federal Insurance Co., 2008-PER-00037 (BALCA Feb. 20, 2009) the fact that the Kellogg language did not appear on the form could not be a ground for denial as there is no space on the ETA-9089 form for such language; and the Kellogg language also does not need to appear in recruitment materials. BALCA in Federal Insurance held that a denial would offend fundamental fairness and due process under HealthAmerica, 2006-PER-0001 (BALCA July 18, 2006). HealthAmerica is a seminal BALCA decision, which rejected the certifying officer’s (CO) denial of the labor certification based on a typographical error recording a Sunday advertisement on the form, although the employer possessed actual tear sheets of the advertisement. BALCA rejected the CO’s position that no new evidence could be submitted as the advertisement tear sheets were part of the PERM compliance recordkeeping requirement and thus was constructively submitted by the employer.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Kellogg magic language is not required, DOL’s rigid insistence that alternate requirements be substantially similar becomes especially problematic when a position requires the minimum of a bachelor’s degree but the foreign national qualifies based on equivalent work experience. It is important to draft PERM labor certification applications being aware of this pitfall, as well as the advertisements, so as to avoid a denial. Globalnet Management, 2009-PER-00110 (BALCA Aug. 6, 2009) is illustrative of this problem. In Globalnet Management,, BALCA held that a bachelor’s degree plus two years of experience was not substantially equivalent to 14 years of experience. BALCA did not accept the argument that the alternative requirement of 14 years of experience comported with the well-established formula to determine equivalency under the H-1B visa, three years of experience is equal to one year of education under 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5), and held that the primary and alternative requirements were not substantially equivalent. BALCA relied on Field Memorandum No. 48-94 that set forth the years under the Specific Vocational Preparation (SVP) system for different educational attainments. Therefore, the appropriate alternative for a position requiring a B.S. degree plus two years of experience would have been four years of experience rather than 14 years of experience. While BALCA noted that 8 CFR §214.2(h)(4)(iii)(D)(5) may be persuasive in the absence of other guidance, citing Syscorp International, 1989-INA-00212, it nevertheless relied on Field Memo No. 48-94 in affirming the denial of the labor certification.

One reason why practitioners still include an alternative requirement relating to an equivalent degree is to ensure that the requirement is consistent with the H-1B visa petition. It is not unusual to qualify a foreign national for an H-1B visa who may have the equivalent of a three year degree, and then makes up the fourth year through the equivalent of three years of experience. The following language, which previously passed muster would now put into jeopardy ETA-9089 applications that define an equivalent degree, as follows: “Employer will accept a three year bachelor’s degree and three years of experience as being equivalent to one year of college.” Under the reasoning employed in Globalnet, this assumes that the alternative requirement would involve 12 years of SVP lapsed time while a bachelor’s degree would only require two years of SVP lapsed time. The employer faces a Hobson’s choice. If the employer does not include what it means by an equivalent degree on the ETA-9089, the subsequent I-140 petition will fail. If an employer requires a bachelor’s degree, and if the foreign national does not have the equivalent of a four year degree, and the ETA-9089 does not include a definition with respect to what it means by an equivalent degree, USCIS will assume that the employer required a four year degree and the foreign national would not be able to qualify for the position by virtue of not possessing such a degree.

On the other hand, in light of Globalnet it no longer remains viable to insist on consistency between the H-1B and the labor certification. Hence, if the primary requirement is a bachelor’s degree and two years of experience, and the foreign national does not have a degree whatsoever, the substantially equivalent alternative that would be acceptable to DOL would be four years of experience, as opposed to 14 years of experience. There may be some concern that requiring this formula on the labor certification, which may pass muster for DOL, may still be problematic when the alien has filed an I-140 petition and is also extending the H-1B visa using the “3 for 1” equivalency formula to establish the equivalent degree to qualify for the H-1B occupation. There is some anecdotal evidence of the USCIS questioning the extension of the H-1B visa when the I-140 petition involving the same position did not require a degree.  However, if this issue comes up during an H-1B adjudication, it should be argued that the discrepancy lies in the USCIS regulations and USCIS interpretations relating to H-1B and I-140 petitions, not in the beneficiary’s job or the beneficiary’s qualifications. USCIS ought not to deny an H-1B solely because a beneficiary who has been classified for an H-1B visa through an equivalent degree, either based on a combination of education and experience, or purely through a requirement of 12 plus years of experience, is classified on an I-140 under the EB-3 skilled worker preference requiring something less than a bachelor’s degree.

Finding ways to escape the Globalnet trap (and to achieve consistency with the H-1B) have not been successful. In Microsoft Corporation, 2011-PER-02563 (October 16, 2012), the employer indicated in items H.4 through H.7 in the ETA 9089 that its requirements for the position was a Bachelor’s degree or foreign educational equivalent in Comp. Sci., Eng., Math, Physics, Business or related field and six months of experience in the job offered or in a computer-related occupation or student school project experience. The employer indicated in item H.8 that there was an acceptable alternate combination of education and experience, and specified that it would accept 3 years of work experience for every year missing from a four year college degree. The CO denied on grounds that the alternative requirement was not substantially similar to the primary requirement. When the employer appealed to BALCA, one of its arguments was that 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i) did not apply as it was accepting an alternate combination of education and experience in H.8-C, rather than an alternate experience requirement. This argument, unfortunately, was shot down, since the employer created an alternate requirement by indicating in H.10 that it would require three years of work experience for every year of missing college education. The following extract from the BALCA decision in Microsoft Corporation is worth noting:

The Employer completed item H.8 indicating it would accept an alternate combination of education and experience, but that there was no alternate experience requirement. The Employer, however, completed box H.14 indicating that it will accept three years of work experience for every year of missing education from a four year college degree. Although not listed in item H.8C, box H.14 indicates that the position has, in effect, an alternate experience requirement which varies from zero to twelve depending on the level of education attained by the applicant. Therefore, the CO correctly applied § 656.17(h)(4)(i) in determining whether the alternate experience requirement is substantially equivalent to the primary requirement.

The reason why labor certifications of this sort stumble is because there is an alternative requirement, thus triggering 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i). The employer can arguably require the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree as a sole requirement, rather than insist on a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent of such a degree, by checking No to H.6 and Yes to H.10 in ETA 9089, and explaining the equivalency formula in H.14. See Matter of DNP America LLC, 2012-PER-00335 (Oct. 6 2015) (employer properly answered No to H.6 because it did not require experience in the offered position, and was instead requiring experience in a similar position, which it appropriately indicated in H.10).   This strategy too is likely to fail as the DOL may argue that an alternate requirement was created in H.10, as in Microsoft, although BALCA has yet to rule on such a fact pattern where the labor certification expresses one requirement, rather than a primary and alternate requirement.

While achieving consistency between the H-1B and the educational requirements on the ETA 9089 may be impossible based degree equivalencies through work experience, it behooves the employer to at least frame the alternate requirement appropriately as being substantially similar to the primary requirement so as to avoid a denial of the labor certification. For foreign nationals who have no degree and have qualified for their H-1B visa status through 12 years of work experience, including the formulaic “3 for 1” year rule as a way to express the equivalency on the labor certification will most certainly be fatal. Instead, this author has experienced success when the employer required a bachelor’s degree in the specialized field as a primary requirement, and as an alternate, required two years of experience in the specialized field in lieu of a bachelor’s degree. This is consistent with DOL’s interpretation under Kellogg and 20 CFR §656.17(h)(4)(i) that the primary requirement of a bachelor’s degree (requiring 2 years of SVP time) is substantially equivalent to  the alternate requirement (which is two years of experience). If the position requires two years of experience in addition to a bachelor’s degree, then the alternate requirement could be 4 years of experience in lieu of a bachelor’s degree.  Similarly, when a foreign national has a three year degree, the best practice is to require either a 3 or 4 year bachelor’s degree plus the relevant experience.

Navigating immigration law is already challenging, and it becomes increasingly more so when one is dealing with the DOL and the USCIS, who are committed to different standards relating to equivalency. What is worse is that the goal posts are constantly moved, and what may have been acceptable previously is unbeknownst to anyone suddenly not. Until both the agencies settle their differences, or legislation forces them to do so, the immigration practitioner will need to be constantly threading the needle when representing foreign clients with equivalent degrees in order to avoid a labor certification denial and successfully obtain permanent residency.

[This is a shorter version of a forthcoming article in ILW’s PERM Book III (High Tech/IT Edition, Ed. Joel Stewart). The blog is for informational purposes only and should not be viewed as a substitute for legal advice]