Laid-off Abbott IT workers won’t have to train their replacements

But they're still losing jobs, despite Sen. Durbin’s call for company to reverse course

An angry letter from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) protesting Abbott Labs' IT employee layoff may be having an impact, but not the way the senator wanted.

The layoffs are part of plan by Abbott to shift some IT work to India-based Wipro, a major user H-1B visas, and Abbott is proceeding with the cuts despite Durbin's plea "to reconsider this plan and retain these U.S. workers."

Abbott put the number of impacted IT employees at "fewer than 150." Durbin's letter has it at 180.

But Abbott may be making changes in how the layoffs are conducted. IT employees, who only spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they were initially told they would be training replacements.

But Abbott said Friday that the "affected Abbott IT employees are not being asked to train their replacements."

The firm's statement appears to confirm the latest employee accounts of what's going on. One worker said the replacement training may be limited to employees who aren't losing their jobs.

Abbott isn't saying whether Durbin's letter had any affect on its transition plan to an IT services provider.  But by not asking IT employees to train replacements, it may be addressing one of the senator's harshest criticisms.  

In his letter to the firm, Durbin wrote: "To add insult to injury, the Abbott Labs IT staff who will be laid off will first be forced to train their replacements."

The employees were contacted by Computerworld through Sara Blackwell, the Florida attorney who is representing some Disney IT workers in lawsuits and discrimination complaints over their layoffs and replacement by contract workers, some who whom were on a visa.

Blackwell has been hearing from the Abbott IT workers and her group, Protect U.S. Workers, is organizing a protest near Abbott Labs on the workers' last day, April 22.

Abbott also said Friday that approximately 80% of the Wipro employees will be U.S. citizens, employed in the U.S, "not temporary foreign workers," said Scott Stoffel, an Abbott spokesman. "The remaining 20% of the contracted Wipro employees will be H-1B visa holders who are already located in the U.S."

The use of H-1B workers goes beyond the issue of employees who have to train visa-holding replacements. The IT services industry is a major user of H-1B workers, and H-1B visas are seen by its critics as a way to shift jobs overseas.  

The reliance by IT services firms on the visa has brought calls for reform, a theme some of the presidential candidates have picked up on this year.

The use of the H-1B program to displace qualified American workers "is unlawful," wrote Durbin in his letter to Abbott. But "loopholes in existing law make it difficult for the federal government to hold violators accountable."

Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have been seeking changes to the program since 2007, but their efforts have been stalled by the larger push for comprehensive immigration reform.

Abbott said it contracted with Wipro "to provide certain IT capabilities currently managed in-house.  The scope of the contract covers numerous Abbott facilities in multiple countries around the world."

Abbott said it is maintaining "the vast majority of our U.S. based IT jobs." The laid-off employees are getting a pay and benefits severance package and will be able to apply for other Abbott jobs.

"We very carefully consider all actions that impact our employees as we value their skills, experience and years of service," said Abbott, in a statement.

While it is uncertain whether Durbin's letter had any direct affect on Abbott, it is clear that it didn't change the planned layoffs.

"Durbin's letter got their attention, and the outcome was they are not going to change anything," said an Abbott IT worker who requested anonymity.

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