H-1B workers laid off in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic are not currently eligible for unemployment.
Unemployment rates have jumped to unprecedented levels due to the coronavirus; shelter-in-place orders and directives to self-isolate have forced many businesses to shut down temporarily or to furlough their workers. Unemployment claims filed with the states last week jumped to 281,000 from 211,000 the week earlier, according to a report released by the Labor Department March 19. Economists predict that the 3.5 percent unemployment rate in February will double in the coming months, due to fallout from the pandemic.
“It’s more than double anything we saw on a percentage basis during the height of the Great Recession, and it’s going to get exponentially worse, much as the testing reveals the virus is spreading,” Diane Swonk, chief economist at Grant Thornton, told CNBC News.
Indian American immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta told India-West H-1B visa holders cannot claim unemployment benefits because they will not be able to work in the future due to the loss of their status as a result of the loss of the job.
“The legal status of an H-1B workers is based on employment, and once the H-1B worker is terminated, he or she is not able to work in the future due to lack of that status,” he explained.
Accessing unemployment benefits requires the worker to be eligible for future employment. Current rules for laid-off or fired H-1B employees require the worker to leave the country within a 60-day grace period.
However, an H-4 visa holder with work authorization may be eligible to claim unemployment benefits, Mehta noted to India-West.
“Unemployment benefits may work for an H-4 spouse with an EAD if the H-1B spouse is in status. The H-4 spouse’s ability to work in the future is linked to the H-1B status of the spouse, and if the H-4 spouse is terminated, she or he can work in the future if the H-1B spouse continues to maintain that H-1B status,” he said, advising workers to look at state rules to determine for what period of time they are eligible.
Unemployment benefits are not considered under the new public charge rule rolled out by the Trump administration in February. The rule prohibits those who have received federal benefits or aid from being able to obtain permanent resident status.
Employees contribute to unemployment benefits via taxes taken out of their paychecks.
Meanwhile, Immigration Voice — an advocacy organization for highly-skilled workers from India — announced March 22 that it has convinced members of the House to include relief for H-1B workers facing layoffs or furloughs in its proposed $2.5 trillion coronavirus stimulus package bill.
The organization said in a statement that they have asked the House to include the following: “In light of the indefinite closing of USCIS offices and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, all existing lawful immigration statuses and EADs will be automatically extended for 1 year from the date the legislation is enacted.
“As per the current language, if you have an H-4 EAD, it will be extended for a year. If you have an H-1B about to expire, it will be renewed and you can remain here even if furloughed until the crisis is over.”
The organization is now trying to convince members of the Senate to include similar protections in its version of a coronavirus relief bill.
“We need the Senate to agree to add the language into its stimulus in order for the doctors and other critical care workers we have in our community to be able to treat patients and go to work without fear of losing their status if they die,” stated Immigration Voice, adding that many of its members working on the front lines of the pandemic are risking their own lives to provide health care for others.