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How One Employee’S Complaint Can Lead to a Full Blown Investigation of an H-1B Employer’S LCA Records

A recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Greater Missouri Medical Pro-Care Providers, Inc.ARB Case No. 12-015, ALJ Case No. 2008-LCA-26 (2014), is worth noting as it addressed the issue of how much latitude the DOL has to investigate an H-1B employer’s H-1B documents and records.

As background, an employer seeking to employ a temporary foreign worker in H-1B (also H-1B1 or E-3) nonimmigrant status must, as the first step in the petition process, file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the Department of Labor (DOL) and receive certification. The LCA is completed on electronic Form 9035 and submitted through the DOL’s iCERT system. The LCA collects information about the occupation including the occupational title, the number of immigrants sought, the gross wage rate to be paid, the starting and ending dates of employment, the place of employment, and the prevailing wage for the occupation in the area of intended employment. The LCA contains special attestation requirements for employers who previously committed willful violations of the law or for employers who are deemed to be H-1B dependent. The employer must also state that its employment of nonimmigrants will not adversely affect the working conditions of workers similarly employed in the area of intended employment. An employer is permitted to file the LCA no more than six months before the initial date of intended employment. See 8 U.S.C. § 1182(n)(1)ID); 20 C.F.R. §§ 655.730-733.

Once the LCA is filed, the DOL must approve it within 7 days unless the application is incomplete or obviously inaccurate. 20 C.F.R. §§ 655.740(a)(1)-(2). Within one day of the LCA filing, the employer must maintain a public access file accessible to interested and aggrieved parties. The file must be available at either the principal employer’s place of business or at the employee worksite. 20 C.F.R. § 655.760(a). An aggrieved employee has 12 months after the latest date on which an alleged violation was committed to file a complaint with the DOL Wage and Hour Division (WHD). 20 C.F.R. § 655.806(a)(5).

In Greater Missouri, the employer hired numerous physical and occupational therapists from the Philippines on H-1B status. As required, the employer filed LCA applications for the desired workers. One H-1B employee, a physical therapist from the Philippines, filed a complaint alleging that she had personally paid all the fees, including attorney’s fees, to file and to extend her H-1B status and that the employer failed to pay her during a nonproductive period of over one year when she was reviewing for her licensing exam. The employee also questioned whether the H-1B employer was legally permitted to charge her a fee for “breach of contract” due to her early termination of her employment.

Upon review of the employee’s complaint (forwarded to the DOL by the Missouri state regulators), the DOL treated it as an “aggrieved party” complaint and the DOL investigator concluded that there was “reasonable cause” to investigate the charge that the H-1B employer had attempted to require the employee to pay a penalty for ceasing her employment early. Based only on the determination that this one charge was worth investigating, the DOL investigator launched a full scale investigation and sent a letter to the H-1B employer requesting all of its H-1B documents and records. The DOL investigator also interviewed the aggrieved employee and the employer’s other H-1B workers.

Based on its investigations, the DOL found that the employer improperly failed to pay wages to employees who it had placed in nonproductive status (benched); made improper deductions from employee wages for H-1B petition fees; and required or attempted to require improper penalty payments from some employees for early termination. The employer was ordered to pay over $380,000 in back wages to 45 employees.

The employer fought back by requesting a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  The employer argued that the applicable statute and regulations limited the DOL’s investigation to the specific issues of the complaint that was filed and only to that aggrieved party’s LCA. The employer also argued that the statute and regulations impose a 12 month time limit for investigating violations. However, the ALJ held that the 12 month time limit only refers to when a complaint can be filed and does not refer to the scope of remedies that can be meted out. The ALJ issued a decision ordering the employer to pay back wages, fees for illegal fee deductions and amounts to employees for illegally withholding paychecks.  When the ALJ failed to hold in the employer’s favor, the employer petitioned for review before the Administrative Review Board (ARB).

The ARB held that the DOL indeed had the authority to investigate alleged violations involving H-1B workers who did not file complaints but also held that violations that occurred outside of the 12 month period prior to the filing of a complaint are not actionable.  However, the ARB affirmed the order for employer to pay awards. The employer took the case up to the District Court which affirmed the ARB’s decision and payment of awards. The employer then appealed to the US Court of Appeals. The DOL did not appeal the District Court’s ruling that violations that occurred outside the 12 month period are not actionable.

In the end, the Court of Appeals held that the DOL’s initial investigatory authority is limited to the complaint that was filed and to those specific allegations and the DOL was not authorized to launch a comprehensive investigation of the employer based only on a single allegation by one employee. The Court of Appeals recognized that additional violations could come to light in the course of the DOL’s investigation of a single complaint and that the DOL may need to modify or expand its investigation based on reasonable cause. However, the Court of Appeals found that this was not how the investigation proceeded in the instant case. The Court of Appeals held that the awards cannot stand because the ARB’s finding of violations and the resulting awards were based entirely on the DOL’s unauthorized investigation of matters other than the allegation in the aggrieved party’s complaint. The US Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court.

While this was ultimately a victory for the H-1B employer and it is good to note that the DOL does not have sweeping authority to investigate allegations of violations that fall outside of the 12-month statute of limitations, this case is nevertheless a cautionary tale for all H-1B employers. Even a single complaint from one disgruntled employee could lead to a comprehensive investigation of the employer’s H-1B practices. Even though the Court of Appeals in Greater Missouri found that the DOL had overstepped in its initial investigation, the court also pointed out that the DOL may modify its investigation of a single complaint if other violations come to light.   Greater Missouri also highlights the fact that once allegations are made, the employer bears the burden of proof to prove that it has complied with the LCA attestations. Therefore, the importance of excellent record keeping cannot be overstated.

Going into 2016, it would be a good idea for any H-1B employer that is not 100% confident in its LCA records, and its ability to withstand a DOL audit of those records, to conduct a self-audit on behalf of the employer and bring to light any issues that the employer can immediately correct and ensure that it is in compliance. Such a self-audit will give the employer the confidence that it needs should the DOL ever launch an investigation and will help the employer to avoid the potential financial and reputation damage that could come from such an investigation. When it comes to DOL investigations, the proactive approach is always best.

AAO FIRMLY TETHERS H-1B WORKERS TO AN LCA LIKE A DOG IS TO A LEASH

In Matter of Simeio Solutions, LLC, 26 I&N Dec. 542 (AAO 2015), the AAO affirmed the Service Center Director’s decision and revoked the petition’s approval. Among other things, the Director had concluded that changes in the beneficiary’s places of employment constituted a material change to the terms and conditions of employment as specified in the original petition. The changes included different metropolitan statistical areas from the original place of employment, which USCIS agents were unable to find. The AAO found that the petitioner should have filed an amended Form I-129 H-1B petition corresponding to a new labor condition application (LCA) that reflected these changes, but the petitioner failed to do so. The AAO noted that petitioners must immediately notify USCIS of any changes in the terms and conditions of employment of a beneficiary that may affect eligibility for H−1B status

In affirming the Director’s decision, the AAO noted:

(1) A change in the place of employment of a beneficiary to a geographical area requiring a corresponding Labor Condition Application for Nonimmigrant Workers (LCA) be certified to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with respect to that beneficiary may affect eligibility for H-1B status; it is therefore a material change for purposes of 8 CFR §§ 214.2(h)(2)(i)(E) and (11)(i)(A) (2014).

(2) When there is a material change in the terms and conditions of employment, the petitioner must file an amended or new H−1B petition with the corresponding LCA.

In the not too distant past, employers relied on informal USCIS guidance indicating that so long as a new LCA was obtained prior to placing an H-1B worker at a new worksite, an amended H-1B petition was not required. See Letter from Efren Hernandez III, Dir., Bus. And Trade Branch, USCIS, to Lynn Shotwell, Am. Council on int’l Pers., Inc. (October 23, 2003). The AAO has now explicitly stated in Simeio Solutions, footnote 7, that the Hernandez guidance has been superseded. Even prior to the guidance being formally superseded, employers were filing amended H-1B petitions as consular officers were recommending to the USCIS that the H-1B petition be revoked if a new LCA was obtained without an amendment of the H-1B petition. According to the AAO, “[i]f an employer does not submit the LCA to USCIS in support of a new or amended H-1B petition, the process is incomplete and the LCA is not certified to the Secretary of Homeland Security.” The AAO cites INA 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b), 8 CFR 214.2(h)(4)(i)B)(1) and 20 CFR 655.700(b) to support its position, but none of these provisions seem to suggest that an LCA obtained after an H-1B petition has already been submitted is not valid if it is “not certified to the Secretary of Homeland Security.”   The DOL certifies the LCA. There is no separate process where the DOL also has to certify the LCA to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

It is not so much the cost that troubles employers with respect to filing an amended H-1B petition. The USCIS has made it extremely onerous for employers to obtain H-1B petitions especially when an H-1B worker will be assigned to third party client sites. This is a legitimate business model that American companies across the board rely on to meet their IT needs, but the USICS requires an onerous demonstration that the petitioning company will still have a right to control the H-1B worker’s employment. Each time the employer files an amendment, the USCIS will again make the employer demonstrate the employer-employee relationship through the issuance of a humongous Request for Evidence (RFE). The employer will thus risk a denial upon seeking an amendment, even though it received an H-1B approval initially on virtually the same facts.

H-1B workers in other industries such as healthcare also get re-assigned to different locations, such as physicians, nurses and physical therapists. They too will be over burdened by the need to file amended H-1B petitions each time they move to a new work location. One may also have to await the approval of the amendment before the H-1B worker can move to the new job location. The portability provision at INA 214(n) seems to apply only when an H-1B worker is accepting “new employment” by a “prospective employer of a new petition.”

Arguably, if an H-1B worker is being moved to a new job location within the same area of intended employment, a new LCA is not required and nor will an H-1B amendment be required. The original LCA should still be posted in the new work location within the same area of intended employment.

20 CFR 655.17 defines “area of intended employment”:

Area of intended employmentmeans the area within normal commuting distance of the place (address) of employment where the H-1B nonimmigrant is or will be employed. There is no rigid measure of distance which constitutes a normal commuting distance or normal commuting area, because there may be widely varying factual circumstances among different areas (e.g., normal commuting distances might be 20, 30, or 50 miles). If the place of employment is within a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or a Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area (PMSA), any place within the MSA or PMSA is deemed to be within normal commuting distance of the place of employment; however, all locations within a Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) will not automatically be deemed to be within normal commuting distance. The borders of MSAs and PMSAs are not controlling with regard to the identification of the normal commuting area; a location outside of an MSA or PMSA (or a CMSA) may be within normal commuting distance of a location that is inside (e.g., near the border of) the MSA or PMSA (or CMSA).

So a move to a new job location within New York City would not trigger a new LCA, although the previously obtained LCA would need to be posted at the new work location. This could happen if an entire office moved from one location to another within NYC, or even if the H-1B worker moved from one client site to another within NYC.

The  DOL Wage and Hour Division Fact Sheet # 62J at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/FactSheet62/whdfs62j.htmalso confirms this:

If the employer requires the H-1B worker to move from one worksite to another worksite within a geographic area of intended employment, must the employer obtain an LCA for each worksite within that area of intended employment?

No. The employer need not obtain a new LCA for another worksite within the geographic area of intended employment where the employer already has an existing LCA for that area. However, while the prevailing wage on the existing LCA applies to any worksite within the geographic area of intended employment, the notice to workers must be posted at each individual worksite, and the strike/lockout prohibition also applies to each individual worksite.

The AAO decision in Simeio Solutions further over regulates the H-1B visa, which is already subject to the most hyper-technical scrutiny. This in turn will deprive American companies of an efficient business model that has provided reliability to companies in the United States and throughout the industrialized world to obtain top-drawer talent quickly with flexibility and at affordable prices and scale that benefit end consumers and promote diversity of product development. This is what the oft-criticized “job shop” readily provides. By making possible a source of expertise that can be modified and redirected in response to changing demand, uncertain budgets, shifting corporate priorities and unpredictable fluctuations in the business cycle itself, the pejorative reference to them as “job shop” is, in reality, the engine of technological ingenuity on which progress in the global information age largely depends.  Such a business model is also consistent with free trade, which the US promotes vehemently to other countries, but seems to restrict when it applies to service industries located in countries such as India that desire to do business in the US through their skilled personnel

The Hernandez guidance provided flexibility to employers whose H-1B workers frequently moved between client locations, while ensuring the integrity of the H-1B visa program. Employers were still required to obtain new LCAs based on the prevailing wage in the new area of employment, and also notify US workers. However, they were not required to file onerous H-1B amendments each time there was a move, and risk further arbitrary and capricious scrutiny. The AAO has removed this flexibility, and has further regulated the H-1B to such an extent that the LCA must now always firmly and securely tether an H-1B worker through an amended petition just like a dog is to his leash, although the latter may still be occasionally let loose to enjoy more freedom than an H-1B!

The Ambiguous B-1 Visa: Lessons Learned From the Infosys Settlement

Infosys is one of India’s most storied IT companies with a roster of impressive clients in the US, including named Wall Street Banks, Silicon Valley companies, retail chains, insurance companies and manufacturers. With a footprint all over the world and known for its integrity and probity, it thus came as a surprise that the United States accused Infosys of malfeasance in procuring visas for its foreign national employees to come to the US.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security, launched an investigation in 2011 into Infosys’s alleged misuse of B-1 business visas. The investigation was spurred by a whistleblower’s law suit that made similar allegations, which got dismissed. On October 30, 2013, Infosys reached a settlement agreeing to pay a civil fine of $34 million to the US government, the biggest fine ever paid for an immigration case, but did not admit to the allegations of fraud and malfeasance.

There are plenty of lessons one can take away from the Settlement Agreement upon an objective review. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, Infosys did not incur any criminal liability. For instance, the government accused, among other things, the IT giant for bringing its employees on B-1 business visas to the United States to actually perform work. The government further accused Infosys of generating invitation letters to US consular officials indicating that their purpose of travel was for “meetings” and “discussion” when the true purpose was to work in the US, which can only be performed under the more onerous H-1B visa, such as coding and programming. Infosys, on the other hand, countered that it has always used the B-1 visa for legitimate purposes and not to circumvent the H-1B visa. Infosys also stated that the Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Manual permits other activities under the B-1 visa provided that they are incident to international trade or commerce, including those alleged by the US to be improper, such as coding and programming. The government also accused Infosys of directing its employees to misrepresent that they would be performing work at the location stated on the Labor Condition Application (LCA) underlying the H-1B visa petition, when they would actually be going to work at another location. Infosys also denied this accusation. Infosys, however, admitted to violations concerning its obligations to verify employees on form I-9. Still, despite the denial of any fraud or malfeasance, Infosys paid a humongous fine of $34 million.

It was indeed the ambiguity in the B-1 rules that snared Infosys and it was the same ambiguity in the B-1, which ultimately saved it from criminal liability. This is evident in the statement of the lead prosecutor in the case, Shamoil Shipchandler, who is quoted in a Wall Street Journal article:

“It’s not 100% clear what someone who holds a B-1 visa can actually do,” he said. For example, placing someone within a company for six months to do in-house tech support is an improper use of a B-1 visa. But if a consultant helps refine software during a meeting with a client, as part of a larger project, that could be seen as an appropriate use of a visitor visa, Mr. Shipchandler said. “It’s a murky area, but for our purposes they misled consular officials.”

As we noted in a prior blog on the B-1 category, the B-1 business visa remains one of the “most ill-defined” visas but plays a very important role in providing flexibility to business travelers. While the B-1 visa is associated with visiting the US to participate in meetings and negotiate contracts, it can have broader purposes. For example, the “B-1 in lieu of H-1B” was created to facilitate travel to the US of individuals who would otherwise qualify for an H-1B visa, but only needed to come to the United States for a limited period of time. In the current controversy over the B-1 visa, scant attention has been paid to the “B-1 in lieu of the H-1B,” which permits broader activities than the regular B-1 visa, albeit for a short period of time. Indeed, many of the activities that have been alleged to be outside the scope of the B-1 may be permissible under the “B-1 in lieu of the H-1B.” The case law with respect to business visitors only adds to the confusion over the definition of “business” in the US.  In Matter of Hira, 11 I. & N. Dec. 824, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) held that the term “business” does not include ordinary labor for hire, but is limited to intercourse of a commercial character. The BIA concluded that an alien entering with a B-1 visa to “study the US business market”, who on behalf of his employer (a Hong Kong based manufacturer of custom made men’s clothing), took orders from, and the measurements of, prospective customers in the United States whom he did not solicit; and who then sent the orders, together with the purchase price, to his employer overseas, was engaged in “intercourse of a commercial character,” and was eligible for B-1 visitor for business classification. The BIA specifically stated that Hira’s sojourn in the US was of a “temporary character” and he clearly intended to continue his foreign residence at the termination of his authorized stay. The profits of Hira’s B-1 activities also accrued to the foreign entity. The BIA, however, also clarified that the nature of the business activity itself need not be temporary. The BIA held that for B-1 purposes, the business relationship may be of a continuing or long standing nature. The only condition in this respect is that each visit be temporary in duration. While applicants can make their best case under the ambiguous standards of the B-1 visa in a forthright manner, deception and malfeasance can never be tolerated.

Even though Infosys is allowed to continue to access US visas in the future under the settlement, which also expressly ensures that past investigations  or alleged wrongful conduct will not be used to prejudice future applications, this episode is a wakeup call for others to ensure that corporations exercise good governance with respect to immigration matters. There is bound to be stricter scrutiny in the future of all applicants, and there is little doubt that Congress in future legislation may also use the Infosys example to tighten the ability for IT consulting firms to access business and work visas, as it has already accomplished in S. 744. Still, this episode can prove to be a valuable teaching moment for Infosys and other IT consulting firms. One of the conditions under the settlement agreement is that Infosys will provide more detailed description of the activities that will be performed when an applicant applies for a B-1 visa. As the B-1 visa allows a wide range of permissible activities, a best industry practice can evolve to specify the proposed activities in some detail, and the legal basis for them, when applicants apply for a B-1 visa or at the time of seeking admission at a port of entry. As a quid pro quo, it is hoped that the government will also seriously adjudicate such applications on their merits.

The work location indicated in the LCAs of H-1B workers in the IT consulting industry are also bound to change after the initial filing. Interestingly, the settlement agreement does not suggest that the employer file an amended H-1B petition, and instead, only alleged that Infosys did not submit a new LCA covering the new location. In the future, employers should immediately file new LCAs to cover the new locations after the original location has changed, and make disclosure at the time of applying for a visa or at the port of entry. It may also be prudent for the employer to proactively file LCAs in future anticipated locations, whenever feasible, in case there is a change in the work location, thus obviating the need to submit one after the H-1B petition is already approved. It is further hoped that the government will not insist on the more cumbersome and expensive H-1B amendment, which was not suggested in the settlement agreement.

It goes without saying that employers must also be compliant with their I-9 obligations. While there have been no dearth in enforcement actions for I-9 violations, the action against Infosys was novel as it involved allegations of misuse of the B-1 visa in addition to the I-9 violations, while Infosys countered by saying that its use of the B-1 was proper. Despite the settlement, the scope of the B-1 visa continues to remain ambiguous, although it would behoove employers to articulate the reasons for the B-1 visa in an application and then to have their employees abide by the terms and conditions upon visiting the US.

As noted in a prior blog, it is important too for the end user client company to be vigilant to ensure that foreign national workers assigned to the company are working under the appropriate visa categories. In the event that the end user client has knowledge or encourages activities not authorized under these visa categories, there is potential for the company to be ensnared in criminal liability.  Even short of criminal liability, it is important to make sure due diligence has been done to avoid being caught up in an embarrassing investigation against a partner company. If the end user company urgently needs software engineers through its IT contracting company for a project, a manager within the end user company may be requested to write a let­ter as a client of the contracting compa­ny to justify the need for its employee overseas to visit the US on a B-1 visa. If this letter indicates that the software engineer is required for meetings, or to conduct an analysis of the project to be subsequently worked on overseas (an obviously per­missible B-1 activity), but the actual pur­pose is for the engineer to actually par­ticipate in programming and working on the solution in the U.S., it may come back to haunt the end user company if there is a criminal investigation against the IT contracting company. Therefore, when drafting such a letter, it is important to ensure that the proposed activities discussed in the letter are per­missible B-1 activities, and when the foreign national arrives, he or she engages in activities that are consistent with the listed activities.  Of course, if the foreign national is assigned to perform work at the client company, the end user must ensure that the worker has an appropriate work visa such as the H-1B visa. End user clients must cooperate with the sponsoring employer to post the LCA at their sites.

Some years ago Wal-Mart was criminally investigated for engaging janitors as independent contractors when it knew that they were not authorized to work in the US. The investigation ended with a consent decree in 2005 where Wal-Mart like Infosys did not also acknowledge any wrong doing,  although the practices that have emerged from that episode with respect to ensuring that even employees of independent contracting companies have I-9s have become the gold standard. While its reputation has taken a beating – not to mention that Indian heritage IT firms even if compliant have borne the brunt of intense governmental scrutiny in recent years – Infosys also has the opportunity to develop gold standard best practices in the B-1 and other arenas (such as tracking work sites of their employees under the LCA) to not only comply with the terms of the settlement but to also assure its prestigious clients who must be anxious after the settlement.

Infosys should consider itself fortunate that it did not go down in flames like Enron or Anderson, and has been given another chance. It must seize this opportunity to redeem itself by elevating standards and best practices, which others will follow and which the government will hopefully honor.  In conclusion, the following quotefrom US Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas is worth noting:

“Infosys persuaded me and our partners that they could be fully fledged legal participants in the immigration process of the United States, so we’ll see,” Bales said. He added that Infosys hired American workers and was valuable to the American economy, and “we’re not in the business of putting people out of business when they provide value.”

The H-1B Process Gets Even Harder: DOL Proposes Dramatic Changes to the LCA Form

I still think longingly of the days when certification of a Labor Condition Application (“LCA”) could be obtained within seconds. Three years ago, the Department of Labor (DOL) mandated that all LCA filings must be filed through its iCERT portal (http://icert.doleta.gov/) and that each application form, also changed to request additional, new information, would be manually reviewed prior to certification. This change increased the official LCA processing time from a few seconds to 7 business days. Human error and other systemic problems at the onset of the change resulted in filings taking three weeks or longer to process which led to late filings on H-1B petitions, a public outcry and US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) temporarily allowing employers to file H-1B petitions without certified LCAs! The new iCERT system forced H-1B employers to change their approach to filing H-1B petitions. The LCA process is about to change again.

As a background, an employer seeking to employ a temporary foreign worker in H-1B, H-1B1 or E-3 nonimmigrant status must, as the first step in the petition process, file an LCA with the DOL and receive certification. The LCA is completed on electronic Form 9035 through the DOL’s iCERT system. The LCA collects information about the occupation and there are special attestation requirements for employers who previously committed willful violations of the law or for employers who are deemed to be H-1B dependent. An employer is permitted to file the LCA no more than six months before the initial date of intended employment.

The DOL now seeks to once again revise the scope of the information collected on the LCA citing, in its LCA supporting statement, a desire to improve its integrity review and ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information. On July 9, 2012, the DOL published a Notice in the Federal Register announcing a 60-day comment period (to end on September 7, 2012) on its proposed changes to the form ETA-9035. In a process that is likely to take several months, the changes must be approved by the federal Office of Management and Budget before they can be implemented.

Changes include requiring more detailed information about the prevailing wage; requiring more detailed information regarding how the employer determined whether it is H-1B dependent and whether the nonimmigrant worker is an exempt employee or if not exempt, specifying the employer’s recruitment efforts to recruit US workers; and requiring the employer to list the address where the employee’s public access file is kept.

Some of the changes are even more significant.

Identification of Intended Beneficiaries

The current LCA does not require any information identifying the intended beneficiaries. The new form will collect information on the nonimmigrant(s) including name, date of birth, country of birth, country of citizenship and current visa status. If a PERM labor certification application was filed on behalf of the intended beneficiary, the PERM application number must be listed.

In its LCA supporting statement, the DOL states that this new information will allow its Wage Hour Division (WHD), which was created with the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and is responsible for the administration and enforcement of a wide range of laws which collectively cover virtually all private, State and local government employment, to more efficiently gather information during its enforcement activities and to find beneficiaries who may be entitled to back wages after an investigation. The DOL claims that this change will cause little extra burden because employers “generally know who the beneficiaries are before filing the LCA except possibly for the 2.6 percent of employers who file LCA’s for more than 10 employees.” Because iCERT saves much of the information on an LCA which can later be used to fill out other LCAs, the DOL states that it will not be overly burdensome for an employer to complete more than one LCA. The DOL also refers to its “relatively quick turnaround on LCA approval” as another reason why employers do not need to complete one LCA for large numbers of beneficiaries.

The DOL makes some valid points.  The majority of employers do not need to complete an LCA for more than 10 workers at a time. iCERT indeed saves most of the information and it may not be overly burdensome to complete multiple LCAs.  However, since employers are required to make LCAs available for public inspection, privacy and identity theft concerns are easily justifiable. The DOL ought to address this.

In addition, what the DOL has not addressed is the flexibility that will be lost because employers will no longer be able to use an existing, certified LCA to file a nonimmigrant petition for a new hire. The new identification requirement may be hard on large employers who file numerous H-1B petitions. The current annual cap on the H-1B category is 65,000. Each year, on April 1, USCIS begins accepting cap-subject H-1B petitions for employment to commence in the new fiscal year, on October 1. Employers typically scramble to prepare and file cap-subject H-1B petitions before the cap closes. For large employers, especially those with branches abroad, it is may be difficult to come up with a list, in March or April, as to who will be transferred to the US to work in October. These hiring decisions are ongoing and employers rely on the flexibility of the LCA which allows them to quickly file an H-1B petition using an existing, certified LCA provided it lists the correct information such as visa category, job classification, etc. This way, employers are not always forced to spend 7 business days waiting for the LCA to be certified and watching existing H-1B visa numbers dwindle.

What about that H-1B worker who just received notice from his current employer and has luckily found a new employer willing to file an H-1B on their behalf? How significant would it be if the new employer is able to use an existing, certified LCA and file an H-1B transfer petition before that worker falls out of status? What the DOL describes as a “relatively quick turnaround on LCA approval” can seem interminable in the case of an emergency. The DOL must bear in mind that no matter the emergency, it provides no expedite procedures for the LCA. Flexibility is therefore very important.

Interestingly, the new LCA would require listing the beneficiaries’ PERM application numbers. At this time, the possible acceptable responses to this question are not clear. But, since the PERM application is filed by the employer, a new employer of an H-1B transfer might not have this information. But this requirement suggests that the DOL may begin to cross reference the job opportunities in the nonimmigrant and immigrant cases as well as match the wages in both the cases.

Limiting the LCA to only 10 workers

Currently, a single LCA may be filed for up to hundreds of workers. An employer may use a single LCA to request multiple positions where they are in the same visa category and job classification and are either all part-time or all full-time positions.

The DOL now seeks to limit the number of workers to 10 per LCA explaining that it has found enforcement of LCA obligations difficult when an LCA is for 50 or 100 job opportunities and it would be a significant expenditure to build an electronic form to accept more than 10 names.

The issue, as discussed above, may not be with the limit of 10 names, but with naming requirement itself and the limitations that come from that.

Worksite Identification

The current LCA form requires the employer to identify the place(s) of intended employment. This entails listing the complete address and county where the beneficiary will work. The proposed new LCA will require significant additional detail.

The employer will have to indicate whether the intended worksite is the employer’s business premises; the employer’s private household; the worker’s private residence; or other business premises which type must then be inserted on the form. The employer must state whether the employee placement is at an end client location. If yes, the form then requires the name of the end client.

In its LCA supporting statement, the DOL stated simply that the additional information is needed for “clarification on actual worksite to enable employer to demonstrate regulatory compliance regarding changes in worksite.” This requirement could cause serious problems.

Again, the employer’s flexibility may be taken away. Currently, the employer has the flexibility to send employees to new worksite locations without filing a new LCA provided the new location is in the same area of intended employment listed on the certified LCA. See 20 C.F.R. §655.731(a)(2) which states that the wage on an LCA is valid for the area of intended employment. If each LCA has to list the end client information, will the employer be required to complete a new LCA each time it moves an employee even if it is within the intended area of employment?

Also, in cases where the employer is filing a change of status petition on behalf of the beneficiary or the beneficiary is abroad and will obtain an H-1B visa to enter the US, until the beneficiary is lawfully present in the United States in valid H-1B status and is thereby authorized to accept employment in the United States, the employer cannot hold him out as an employee.  See 8 C.F.R § 274a.1(c) and (f). Therefore, the employer may not be able to obtain that end client agreement prior to preparing the LCA.

Business immigration practitioners may already know that cases involving telecommuting and roving employees are currently being given increased scrutiny by the DOL. In light of that, the proposed changes to the LCA form are not surprising and seem to stem from some concern on the part of the DOL, with regard to LCA compliance and the bona fides of the offer of employment. Following the request for end client information on the proposed form is the irrelevant and possibly offending question, “Is this a bona fide job opportunity?” The DOL’s makes no effort to hide its blatant mistrust of the employer who places its employee at an end client site.

In recent times, the US government has taken small steps to attract foreign workers and to show that they are an asset rather than a liability. The changes to the LCA will again add more burdens on the employer by eliminating flexibility. On March 12, 2012, the USCIS issued revised guidance indicating that the failure to obtain an end client letter would not be fatal to an H-1B petition. The DOL is now insisting on exactly that by requiring that the precise worksite be listed on the LCA. We need less regulation rather than more in order for US companies to attract global talent.  In addition to the proposed changes to the LCA, there is proposed legislation in the form of HR 3012 (following the compromise between Senators Grassley and Schumer) that will grant the DOL draconian powers in denying LCAs based on undefined indicators of suspected fraud and thus hold up the processing of H-1B petitions.    Are the proposed changes to the LCA form taking two steps back?

The LCA in the Age of Telecommuting

By Cyrus D. Mehta and Myriam Jaidi

An H-1B employee has a job with a company based in New Jersey. Her job can, however, be performed remotely from virtually anywhere in the United States or the world. So long as she has good internet access, she can sign in to her employer’s server and perform her work as if she were in the office. She usually works at her office, but has decided to work from home in Pennsylvania for two months. When her boyfriend’s mother, who lives in California, becomes ill, she and her boyfriend go out to care for her, staying for six weeks. She then goes on a cruise in US waters, still telecommuting to work. She has no work-related duties in Pennsylvania or California (or out in US waters during the cruise), such as working with clients there, and will be effectively telecommuting to the New Jersey office. What would her employer need to do in order to comply with the Department of Labor’s regulations for H-1B workers, specifically with regard to the Labor Condition Application (LCA) rules?

As a background, the LCA is to an H-1B worker like a leash is to a dog. The LCA ensures that notice is provided to US workers about the fact that an H-1B worker is being sought, the occupational classification, the wages offered, the period of employment, locations at which the H-1B worker will be employed, and that the LCA and accompanying documents are available for public inspection. See 20 CFR § 655.734.

Telecommuting (or “telework” as labeled by the US government) has become more and more prevalent. (See studies here, http://tinyurl.com/6jcc7ww.) Telecommuting employees raise important questions and issues in the immigration context, especially with regard to the Labor Condition Application required for H-1B nonimmigrant workers.

The first issue raised under the facts above is whether a new LCA is required for each location, and if so, whether the posting should be done in the employee’s home and in her boyfriend’s mother’s home.

These situations raise interesting concerns about how (and where) work is “actually” performed (as stated in the regulations) in a global economy increasingly characterized by telecommuting. Can it be argued that because the employee is logging into the employer’s system in New Jersey, the work is actually being performed in New Jersey? Not likely given the structure of the regulatory scheme, but it is something that should be considered in the global economy.

The laws governing the LCA and H-1B processes are out-dated. They do not recognize, and in fact guidance issued by USCIS in 2010, available at http://tiny.cc/z3ZU8, makes clear that some government agencies view with skepticism, the global economy and the increasing frequency of telecommuting.

The LCA and the attestations an employer makes when submitting one were developed as a means to protect wages and working conditions, and to ensure that US workers are made aware of the hiring of H-1B professionals (which makes the concept of posting an LCA in someone’s home or vacation hotel room somewhat absurd). The regulatory scheme is largely location-oriented. Violation of the regulatory framework may result in fines, debarment from participation in the LCA (and thus H-1B) process, and further investigations. Thus, even where a company pays the required wage for any location and has no intent of violating the procedures, a failure to comply with the specific technical requirements, even where compliance seems absurd, may result in penalties.

USCIS has become more location-oriented in its analysis of H-1B petitions. USCIS now examines worksite issues more closely and, with the recently issued Form I-129, has begun to request greater detail on worksites and itineraries for all H-1B petitions. The agency’s interest stems in part from its concern with the existence of a proper employer-employee relationship to support an H-1B petition. (For more information, see From Problem to Springboard: Tips on Using the Neufeld Memorandum in Support of H-1B Petitions, available at http://tinyurl.com/33t7fkz.) Such a relationship is defined in part by where an employee is working and whether the employer has control over the employee’s work at that location. The companies currently subjected to the highest scrutiny are those that place workers at end client sites (i.e., work locations not controlled by the petitioning employer) to perform services/work. But the concerns raised in that category may spread to other circumstances, such as the employee telecommuting from home.

The definitions addressing where an H-1B employee works were developed originally with a focus on the worker’s actual physical location, assuming that the job duties would need to be performed in a particular location. Gathering statistics and issuing prevailing wage determinations require pinpointing a particular city or geographic area. The entire prevailing wage framework is place-based. 20 CFR 655.715 provides the following definitions:

Area of intended employment means the area within normal commuting distance of the place (address) of employment where the H–1B nonimmigrant is or will be employed. …

Place of employment means the worksite or physical location where the work actually is performed by the H–1B, H–1B1, or E–3 nonimmigrant.

These definitions are vague and do seem to leave room to argue that an H-1B worker who can be anywhere but works through the employer’s location via the internet (thus the work arguably “actually is performed” at the employer’s location), is always within “normal commuting distance” so long as the employee has proper internet access. If all that the worker needs is a computer and an internet connection to perform the work, then it would be most logical to post the LCA where the employer’s server is located! To go back to our hypothetical and show how absurd it can be, imagine our H-1B telecommuter embarking on a voyage on a cruise ship for more than 30 days from San Francisco, CA to Anchorage, Alaska. Each time the ship enters a location, which is not within commuting distance from the original location posted on the LCA, a new LCA will need to be posted on the cruise ship. So, her employer, who is a stickler about compliance, posts an LCA with a San Francisco, CA location, which is where the ship starts its voyage. By the time, the cruise ship sails up the waters adjoining Oregon and Washington, new LCAs will need to be obtained and posted on the cruise ship. Once the cruise ship is in Canada, we can assume that the DOL’s LCA regulations do not apply in foreign territories, but with the DOL you can never tell as it passionately attempts to expansively interpret its rules. Once the ship reaches Alaska, more rounds of LCA’s will need to be posted (as Alaska is a huge territory) until its final destination in Anchorage, Alaska.

Nevertheless, using the employer’s address even where the employee telecommutes because the work is being done virtually at the employer’s location has not been tested. This problem does not arise in the PERM labor certification process with roving employees, because an employer can obviate the problem by using headquarters as the base from which to conduct recruitment. See Cora-Ann Pestaina’s article PERM and the Roving Employee, available at http://tinyurl.com/64dhcv5. A DOL auditor who reviews a company’s LCA public access files may not accept this 21st century application of the policies and definitions. Therefore, however absurd it may sound, it might still be advisable to file an LCA for the worker who telecommutes, and have the worker post the LCA in two conspicuous locations in his or her home or the location from which he or she is telecommuting. In the alternative, the LCA notice provision may be satisfied by an electronic posting directed to employees in the relevant occupation classification. Pursuant to 20 CFR 655.734(a)(ii)(B), such electronic posting may be accomplished:

by any means [the employer] ordinarily uses to communicate with its workers about job vacancies or promotion opportunities, including through its “home page” or “electronic bulletin board” to employees who have, as a practical matter, direct access to these resources; or through e-mail or an actively circulated electronic message such as the employer’s newsletter. Where affected employees at the place of employment are not on the “intranet” which provides direct access to the home page or other electronic site but do have computer access readily available, the employer may provide notice to such workers by direct electronic communication such as e-mail ( i.e., a single, personal e-mail message to each such employee) or by arranging to have the notice appear for 10 days on an intranet which includes the affected employees (e.g., contractor arranges to have notice on customer’s intranet accessible to affected employees).

The benefit of electronic posting is that it may protect an employer in situations where the employee is working remotely from various locations (not office sites, but locations such as a relative’s home or vacation spot) for more than 30 days per year, based on the argument that the electronic posting covers all potential locations. There are some general problems with electronic notification – it does not obviate the need to obtain a new LCA when the H-1B telecommutes, nor does it obviate the need to pick an address to indicate on the LCA. Electronic posting only obviates the absurd situation of having an employee post the LCA in his or her home. Furthermore, the rules governing electronic posting are quite vague and thus fraught with risk. The rules do not make clear who has to be notified – all employees everywhere and anywhere who fall within the same “occupational classification” (and the rules do not indicate how narrowly or broadly that should be interpreted) or only those in the “area of intended employment.” Where is that in an economy increasingly characterized by telecommuting?

The DOL’s framework is location-focused, and gives no clear guidance on whether the work a telecommuting employee does is “actually is performed” at the employer’s address as listed on the LCA, and not where the telecommuting employee is located. What is clear is that one who works remotely for less than 30 days (or in some limited circumstances, up to 60 days, see 20 CFR 655.735((c)) in a one year period need not have a new LCA to cover that employee’s new location.

Even if the DOL has not taken a position on the issue, it is hoped that the DOL auditor who wishes to rigidly apply this 20th century rule on work locations in the 21st century may exercise discretion in not imposing a penalty if the employer has complied in every other aspect. The DOL auditor may decide that given the lack of clarity in this area, the employer took a good faith position. However, to ensure against such risks, employers may wish to prepare a new LCA indicating the address from which the individual will be telecommuting, and have the individual post the LCA in two locations at that address. Until the regulations catch up with reality in the 21st century, this would be the appropriate course of action.