University system won't furlough foreign workers

When employees of the University System of Georgia take their mandated furlough days, foreign workers with a special visa will not be joining them.

University System officials said placing these employees on unpaid leave would require approval from the federal government. About 750 of the system’s 40,000 employees have an H-1B non-immigrant visa, which allows employers to temporarily hire foreign workers in specialty areas.

The employees work as research faculty and postdoctoral students at the University System’s research universities, spokesman John Millsaps said Thursday. According to system data, 110 are at Medical College of Georgia, 113 work at Georgia State University, 227 are employed at University of Georgia and 302 work for Georgia Institute of Technology.

The system would have to spend about $320 on each application for each affected employee to seek the waiver for six furlough days, Millsaps said. The system didn’t know how long it would take to get a response or if each request would be granted, he said.

“We would have to spend money in an attempt to save money, and in the end, they may say no,” he said. “We are pretty much hamstrung by federal law on this.”

According to U.S. Department of Labor rules, an employee with the visa who is furloughed still must be paid by the employer, who can seek a waiver.

In order to receive an H-1B visa, an employer must show there are no Americans able to do the work, according to federal rules.

For each visa, the University System entered into a three-way contract with the employee and federal government and agreed on salary, Millsaps said. The contract stipulates that the pay will not be reduced, he said.

Millsaps said the system had three choices: pay the application fees to change the contracts; furlough employees without a waiver and pay a fine; or exempt them from unpaid leave.

“If the goal is to reduce expenses, the last option is the one that reduces expenses the most,” he said.

There’s been little discord over the exemptions, said Stuart Ivy, president of the UGA Staff Council, which advocates for the college’s faculty and staff members.

“There has been some discussion, but once the reasons are explained, their decision makes sense,” Ivy said.

Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered all state employees to take three furlough days by the end of 2009 as part of a series of budget cuts to overcome a revenue shortfall.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Perdue, said each agency has the flexibility to manage furloughs and budget cuts. He said the University System was taking a reasonable approach.

The Board of Regents has required six furlough days. Employees must take at least three by the end of the calendar year and the remainder by the end of the fiscal year, June 2010. Each campus can decide when employees take furloughs, but local leaders cannot cancel classes.

Another requirement is that the nearly 3,200 employees who make less than $23,600 a year are exempt.