US senators seek probe into Southern California Edison hiring practices, use of visa program

Citing concerns about hiring practices at California's second-largest utility, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators Thursday asked for an investigation into whether companies are firing American workers and replacing them with foreigners to cut costs.

The 10 senators said several U.S. employers have reportedly laid-off thousands of Americans and replaced them with foreign workers holding H-1B visas, frequently used in the technology sector to bring in engineers and computer programmers.

The senators asked the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Labor to investigate whether the H-1B visa program is being used as intended: to bring in, on a temporary basis, skilled workers with highly specialized skills not readily available in the U.S.

The letter follows a hearing last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which invited Southern California Edison to testify, though the company declined.

Ronil Hira, a professor at Howard University, said at the hearing that the utility outsourced work to two companies, and those companies employed H-1B staffers who were then trained by the employees they were replacing.

"There could not be a clearer case of the H-1B program being used to harm American workers' wages and working conditions," Hira said.

Under the H-1B program, U.S. employers hire foreign workers for up to six years and must pay them the same rate they would pay other workers with similar qualifications, or the prevailing wage for that job and location, whichever is higher. This is done to prevent foreign workers from depressing U.S. wages and from being exploited. But former Southern California Edison workers have complained to lawmakers that they were replaced by less-skilled workers at lower costs.

In a statement, the company said it abides by the law and will cooperate with any investigation that concerns the issues mentioned in the senators' letter.

The company explained that it's reducing its information technology department from 1,400 to 860. Of those left, 97 percent are permanent California residents and 3 percent are on H-1B visas.

The company said it's contracting with IT vendors Infosys and TCS to fulfill certain contracts and that most of those U.S-based workers are permanent residents of either California or Ohio and are not working under H-1B visas.

"By transitioning some IT operations to external vendors, along with SCE eliminating some customized functions it will no longer provide, the company will focus on making significant, strategic changes that can benefit our customers," the company's emailed statement read.