Indian tech firm accused of discriminating against non-Indians, misusing H-1B

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An Indian digital-services company has been charged in a lawsuit with discriminating against its American employees and misusing the H-1B and L-1 visas to fill its ranks with South Asian workers for jobs in the US.

The lawsuit, filed by San Jose sales professional Tami Sulzberg, has sought class-action status.

The Mercury News reported that the suit accuses Happiest Minds, which has its US headquarters in San Jose, of using visas and discriminatory hiring and firing practices to fill its ranks with South Asians, mostly Indians.

According to the suit, at least 90% of the US workforce of Happiest Minds is South Asian. The mean rate across the country’s information-technology industry is 12%, it said.

Happiest Minds, which, according to the suit, employs about 200 workers in the US, has not commented on the lawsuit.

Sulzberg said in a court filing that she started at Happiest Minds in Jan 2018 as business development director and was fired four months later. She said she was replaced by an Indian man on an L-1 visa. The L-1 is a non-immigrant work permit for managers or executives transferred into the US from a company’s affiliate office in a foreign country.

The suit also pointed to the alleged misuse by Happiest Minds of the H-1B visa, intended for jobs requiring specialized skills. The H-1B, which is used a lot by Silicon Valley tech firms, is already a target for the Trump administration, which has dramatically boosted denial rates for the visa after reports of abuses by outsourcing companies.

Critics say outsourcers and tech companies use the visa to supplant American workers with cheaper labor from South Asia.

Sulzberg’s suit, filed last Friday in the US District Court in San Jose, alleged that Happiest Minds received 188 new H-1B visas or H-1B visa amendments between 2013 and 2018, plus 12 new L-1 visas in 2018 alone.

“To fulfill its employment preference for South Asians and Indians, Happiest Minds seeks to maximize the number of visas it receives each year from the federal government,” the suit alleged. “All, or substantially all, of the individuals for whom Happiest Minds secures visas are South Asian and Indian.

“Similarly, non-South Asian and non-Indian individuals are often displaced from their current positions in favor of South Asian and Indian visa-ready individuals.”

Sulzberg said in the suit that she had been the only non-Indian among the 25-strong sales team in Happiest Minds. Her troubles began during a sales meeting about six weeks after she started at the firm, the suit claimed.

“Ms Sulzberg was the only female employee at the meeting and the only individual who was non-South Asian and non-Indian,” the suit alleged. “Ms Sulzberg was excluded by her South Asian colleagues who spoke in Hindi, thereby precluding her from participating in certain conversations, and was specifically asked not to attend the first portion of the meeting involving the whole group.”

During her presentation, which was supposed to last an hour, the firm’s South Asian CEO rudely interrupted her, saying he didn’t want to look at her PowerPoint and telling her, ‘Move on, move on,’ before cutting her off after 10 minutes, the suit claimed.

The CEO also asked her to book him a hotel room for an upcoming meeting “despite the fact that Ms Sulzberg’s sales role did not involve such administrative or secretarial responsibilities,” the suit alleged.

The following month, after receiving approval from a senior vice-president to attend a conference in Las Vegas to pursue sales, Sulzberg was told by that executive that the CEO didn’t want her to go, the suit claimed. However, an Indian employee was permitted to attend, the suit alleged.

In the four months that Sulzberg was with the firm, she was evaluated on the basis of how many meetings she obtained, a standard used for junior salespeople lacking her experience, the suit claimed.

Happiest Minds did hire someone to generate meetings for her, but he went on paternity leave soon after joining and didn’t start setting meetings for her until a few weeks before she was terminated, the suit alleged.

Despite the lack of help, Sulzberg hit her meetings target on her own, the lawsuit claimed. But less than two months after meeting the requirement, she was told that her numbers were “below par” and ordered to generate two to three meetings a week, the suit alleged. The day after that, she was fired, with the CEO telling her it was for “not having enough meetings”, the suit claimed.

“This excuse was pretextual, as Ms Sulzberg had many meetings with large companies during her short tenure with the company,” the suit alleged, adding that her prohibition from attending the conference kept her from generating additional meetings.

Four other non-South Asian salespeople were terminated, with one of them replaced by a South Asian man on a visa, the suit claimed. While Happiest Minds fired Sulzberg a few months after hiring her, it retained a South Asian salesman who “did not sell any new business for the company during his first year of employment with Happiest Minds and continues not to meet his sales goals,” the suit claimed. The man had been given a sales portfolio worth more than $400,000, allowing him to generate revenue from current clients, but “Ms Sulzberg was not afforded the same benefit”, the suit alleged.

The suit has asked the court’s approval to be listed as a class action, to bring in anyone not of South Asian origin who applied for jobs at Happiest Minds in the US and was not hired, or whom the company terminated. It has also sought an order forcing the company to adopt a non-discriminatory method for hiring, firing and other employment-related decisions, plus unspecified damages.

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