Kelly Parker was thrilled when she landed her dream job in 2012 providing tech support for Harley-Davidson's Tomahawk, Wis., plants. The divorced mother of three hoped it was the beginning of a new career with the motorcycle company.
The dream didn't last long. Parker claims she was laid off one year later after she trained her replacement, a newly arrived worker from India. Now, she has joined a federal lawsuit alleging that the global staffing firm that ran Harley-Davidson's tech support discriminated against American workers - in part by replacing them with temporary workers from South Asia.
The firm, India-based Infosys Ltd., denies wrongdoing and contends, as many companies do, that it has faced a shortage of talent and specialized skill sets in the U.S. Like other firms, Infosys wants Congress to allow even more of these temporary workers.
But amid calls for expanding the nation's so-called H-1B visa program, there is growing push back from Americans who argue that the program has been hijacked by staffing companies that import cheaper, lower-level workers to replace more expensive U.S. employees - or to keep them from getting hired in the first place.
"It's getting pretty frustrating when you can't compete on salary for a skilled job," said Rich Hajinlian, a veteran computer programmer from the Boston area. "You hear references all the time that these big companies . . . can't find skilled workers. I am a skilled worker."
Hajinlian, 56, who develops his own Web applications on the side, said that he applied for a job in April through a headhunter and that the potential client appeared interested, scheduling a longer interview. Then, said Hajinlian, the headhunter called back and said the client had gone with an H-1B worker whose annual salary was about $10,000 less.
"I didn't even get a chance to negotiate down," he said.
The H-1B program lets employers temporarily hire workers in specialty occupations. The government issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas to businesses every year, and recipients can stay up to six years. Although no one tracks exactly how many H-1B holders are in the U.S., experts estimate there are at least 600,000 at any one time. Skilled guest workers can also enter on other types of visas.
An immigration bill passed in the U.S. Senate last year would have increased the yearly number of available H-1B visas, but the House never acted on the bill.
The argument has long been that there aren't enough qualified American workers to fill certain jobs, especially in science, engineering, and technology.
Critics say that there is no across-the-board shortage of American tech workers, and that if there were, wages would be rising rapidly. Instead, wage gains for software developers have been modest, while wages have fallen for programers.
The debate over whether foreign workers are taking jobs isn't new, but for years, it centered on such low-wage sectors as agriculture and construction. The high-skilled visas have thrust a new sector of American workers into the fray: the middle class.
"We have a shortage in the industry, all right - a shortage of fair and ethical recruiting and hiring," said Donna Conroy, director of Bright Future Jobs, a group of tech professionals fighting to end what it calls "discriminatory hiring that is blocking us ... from competing for jobs we are qualified to do."
Infosys spokesman Paul de Lara responded that the firm has encouraged "diversity recruitment." IBM has also been criticized, and spokesman Doug Shelton said IBM considered all qualified candidates "without regard to citizenship and immigration status."