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Roundtable: More NCTD Troubles, Jail Violence, Ramona Teacher Unrest, H-1b Visas

May 3, 2013 1:19 p.m.


Mark Sauer


Brad Racino, reporter, iNewsource

Kelly Davis, Associate Editor, San Diego CityBeat

Will Carless, reporter, Voice of San Diego

David Wagner, reporter, KPBS News

Related Story: Roundtable: More NCTD Troubles, Jail Violence, Ramona Teacher Unrest, H-1b Visas


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

SAUER: Joining me on the Roundtable are Brad Racino of inewsource.

RACINO: Hey, Mark.

SAUER: Kelly Davis of San Diego CityBeat.

DAVIS: Hi, Mark.

SAUER: KPBS Science and Technology reporter, David Wagner.

WAGNER: Hey, Mark.

SAUER: And Will Carless of Voice of San Diego.

CARLESS: How are you?

SAUER: Good. If you've got a question or comment, give us a call. 1-888-895-5727. Storm clouds continue to circle over the North County Transit District, the popular commuter train has been idle for weeks. The problems with outside contractor business are compounding the challenges facing the executive director, Matt Tucker. Brad, your series this week focused on the mismanagement of the district. Let's start with the distract changes the agency has made in the last four years.

RACINO: About four years ago, Matthew Tucker came to North County, and as executive director, and started to make some changes. The district was in bad shape. And he knew he needed to do something distract. So he changed the agency from a public transportation agency to a contract management agency. He outsourced all the bus drivers, the maintenance men, the dispatchers, and pretty much brought the full-time employees from 530 to under 100 people in the course of two years.

SAUER: And that's a common thing with government, outsourcing. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. You found one of the major issues was contract oversight, the agency was failing to meet some of its responsibilities. Tell us about LIFT. What is that?

RACINO: Lift is their paratransit service. It transports disabled passengers around the county who can't navigate public transportation on their own. There's no fixed route. What happened with that, they outsourced that, and a company called American logistics took over the contract last year, and the audit found that they stranded disabled passengers at their work centers hours early, were picking them up hours late, dispatchers' attitudes were horrible according to a couple people we interviewed. It just was not going well.

SAUER: How long did this go on and what did they do?

RACINO: Well, I spoke with a supervisor at one of the work centers last week, and he said for the last few years, they have been seeing things get worse and worse and worse. Then the audit happened, and according to him things have improved since then.

SAUER: Who did the audit?

RACINO: They put out a can for proposals and had an agency do it.

SAUER: An independent third party. Okay. So do we know if this was a problem when the district was a public agency?

RACINO: Honestly I don't know that.

SAUER: The firm providing protection for the district and its required, they had problems with the guards who worked for the universal protection service. What was the problem there?

RACINO: Are the problem there was that there's security recovers who have a lot of responsibilities, they have to arrest and patrol, they have to pretty much keep all the riders safe throughout the whole district didn't know what they were doing. They didn't have the proper credentials to do that. And there was no real training in place. The private company, university protection service, said for years these people were going to get trained, and they never did. So North County did another audit, and there was no contract oversight, no training no, training file, nothing.

CARLESS: What does the board say about this? The board says they've given this guy, Tucker, raises. Since your stories have come out, and they're really good, has anybody in the board, like, started to take at a stand on this?

RACINO: No, the board will not talk to us. We started trying to reach out to the board in January. No board members will talk to us except for Bill Horn. He said time and again he stands by Matt Tucker and everything is fine. Other board members have remained entirely silent.

SAUER: We've got a caller who would like to join us, Greg from Oceanside.

NEW SPEAKER: Good afternoon. I've been really impressed with a lot of the stories I've been reading, inewsource and KPBS's coverage on North County Transit. And I really honestly believe there's so many improprieties. I think the county grand jury which investigate this whole affair, especially Matthew Tucker and some of the things he's responsible for.

SAUER: Okay, thanks, Greg. Appreciate the call. Any ideas? We don't know specifically what grand juries are taking up at any given time. Has anybody else suggested that?

RACINO: No, there's never been anyone looking into this. We've raised as many issues as we could over the last couple month, and no one has taken up any investigation.

SAUER: You mentioned a moment ago that at least they were looking at the security problem after you raised that.

RACINO: Right. And Tucker said yesterday during the board meeting that there have been a lot of problems and that they're proactively auditing certain things and reaching out to consultants.

CARLESS: I think it should be said as well, credit where credit is due, these guys, managed to get employees of this security company to actually talk to him and say we've got serious problems. You can never do that. As a reporter, I just wanted to point that out. But that should speak to the seriousness of this issue. By the time that employees are willing to stand up and say --

SAUER: Go on the record.

CARLESS: There's obviously a serious lack of oversight.

DAVIS: Your story says that Matthew Tucker game from Virginia in 2009. Were there any problems -- he was the head of a transit agency there. Were there any problems, any history in his past?

RACINO: Not there, no. He was in Virginia for a few years. Before, that he was up in San Jose at the valley transportation authority. We have not actually had any hard evidence there were any problems there.

SAUER: I wanted to ask you about the sprinter, that's the most visible problem they have had up there. And it affects most people. Tell us what's going on with that light commuter line.

RACINO: Well, it's shut down. March9th they took it out of service. It's had some problems since it was brought here from Germany. Pretty much the train had to comply to some standards that it doesn't -- no other trains have to comply to because they had to achieve these brake rates, North County had to install these rotors on to make them complaint, and the brakes wore out pretty quickly. The lead engineer saw the problems comes years ago. So when they did an inspection in late February, they found they were wearing past compliance so they had to take it out of service immediately.

SAUER: Any idea on what's going on with the repair job?

RACINO: No, they said they're installing some new brakes in early May. But there's no definitividate -- on when things will be back in service.

CARLESS: Why is it taking three months? It seems crazy.

RACINO: Because they're special rotors that need to be installed. Because of the brake rates they had to achieve, they had to get these special brakes. And to have them delivered from Germany, there was I think a 6-9 month lead time. So this was already in place months and months ago.

CARLESS: Is there any indication that they were waiting for the brakes and that's why they let them wear down or something like that?

RACINO: No. Well, upper managers did not know about it. But they're working like crazy. And Dick Burk still stands by the fact that it's not an emergency. That the brake rates, the standards were set so high that no one was in danger and it wasn't an emergency.

SAUER: The executive director of the North County Transit District is Matthew Tucker. What does he say about who's at fault with the sprinter?

RACINO: Initially it seemed to be a lot of blame placed on Burk for not telling anybody. We spoke with Tucker a few days ago. And the blame shifted. He said Bombardier is now responsible for the maintenance. So they're looking at them to make up the costs and fix the problem.

SAUER: And who oversees Tucker?

RACINO: There's the board, and then there's SANDAG. SANDAG does a lot with the big projects, the planning and the distribution of funding. But it's the board who is ultimately responsible.

SAUER: We had a board meeting yesterday. What transpired?

RACINO: They spent about 10-15 minutes on the power point presentation refuting a story we did a few weeks ago on the sprinter funding and their allocation of certain operating expenditures that we found in their capital budget. They had an auditor, their own, issue a release that said everything was fine. All expenses were properly allocated. I then called that auditor and spoke with him and he said that they actually never looked at any of the studies that we mentioned in the story. They looked at a $30million Camp Pendleton project and said everything there was kosher. But he never looked at any of the studies we talked about.

SAUER: The North County Transit District was in bad shape when it hired Tucker.

RACINO: Yeah, the district was in really bad shape. The state was using public transportation funds to plug their own general deficit and they were taking a lot out. So Tucker came in, spent a long time coming up with a plan and recommended this outsourcing to save the district. And they've done pretty well over the first few years. They have went from $0 in capital reserve funds to $15million, and they have a relatively stable financial shape right now.

CARLESS: What did Tucker say when you interviewed him? Does he refute everything or say this is working great?

RACINO: We've talked for an hour and 20 minute, so he said a lot of things. As far as the overall picture of it, he stands by the outsourcing. He thinks that things are going as well as they possibly could be. He found fault with a lot of the things that we brought up in the story, but that's what happened.

DAVIS: What I found stunning was the amount of money they've spent on a head hunting company, the very company that found Tucker and got Tucker hired. So just incredible.

RACINO: The amount of money that's been spent is just amazing.

CARLESS: What does he get paid? Twice the industry standard?

RACINO: Yeah, he -- well, we couldn't get a definitive amount.

CARLESS: Really? Wow!

RACINO: We called his communications woman, and she wouldn't tell us. And then she got back to us an hour later and said this is what we heard, that he gets paid $239,000.

CARLESS: So this is a guy getting paid with public dollars who won't tell people how much he gets paid.

SAUER: Wow. Well, we're going to have to wrap it there.

SAUER: Another agency where serious management questions have been raised, the Sheriff's Department. The path to county jail is generally lined with failure, desperation, and sometimes evil intention, but it's not a place where inmates expect to die. Over the 5-year period between 2007 and 2012, six inmates died in San Diego jails, placing San Diego at the top of the list of California's ten largest jail systems. Kelly, tell us how you folks at CityBeat decided to probe this story.

DAVIS: Well, the story that kind of wrapped up the series focuses on Russell Hart saw his elderly, mentally ill physically ill inmate beaten to death brutally by a gang of inmates who took him to be a child molester, which ended up not to be the case.

SAUER: It wasn't true, right

DAVIS: So I found out about his death shortly after it happened and kind of circled around that story for a bit. When you're a reporter, you get really busy with other stuff, and there are things that linger. And that one lingered for a while. And the more Dave Maass -- the more we lingerod that story, he said let's take a look at all inmate deaths. All jail systems have to report inmate deaths to the Department of Justice so the Department of Justice can track and make sure there's no egregious things happening in the jails and prisons. So we started to ask for the names of all inmates whose deaths had been reported. We decided to focus on 2007-2012, and then started canning autopsy reports and going through those and looking for cases where something wasn't right. Someone who should have been monitored more closely ended up dying, someone who should have been on suicide watch ended up killing themselves.

SAUER: That's the sort of thing you were looking for. Let me invite our listeners. 1-888-895-5727. How does the rate of deaths in San Diego County jails compare with state and national averages?

DAVIS: It's far above the average. We looked at the ten largest jail systems in California, and for overall mortality rate, San Diego is at the top. And this is compared to LA, Orange County, places that have slightly larger or much larger inmate populations. And for suicide rates, San Diego is 2nd, just slightly 2nd behind I think Riverside County.

SAUER: I was going to say Riverside.

DAVIS: I've been working on this for so long, so much information coming in.

SAUER: Right.

DAVIS: And San Diego is much, much higher than the national average.

SAUER: So break down the nature of the deaths. How many are suicides, homicides, natural deaths?

DAVIS: I think you've got those numbers.

DAVIS: It's about -- I want to say it's about halves were natural of the 60, and I think it was 39 -- 31 were natural, and I know this number here is wrong, 29 were suicides, homicides or accidents.

SAUER: I should know, we link to all these stories on

DAVIS: Even among the natural deaths though, you might think, oh, it's a natural death. The person was just going to die anyhow. One of the deaths categorized as natural was one we focused on, a 21-year-old heroin addict who had acute asthma. And as he was detoxing, he had a severe asthma attack and ended up dying from his asthma attack. So that was categorized as a natural death. But you know, definitely --

SAUER: Preventable, are you would think.

DAVIS: Exactly. If he had been monitored.

SAUER: I wanted to ask you about the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. And you decided to tell the story with individual cases. Start with the inmates who were killed by deputies.

DAVIS: There were two that jumped out at us. One particular, Tommy Tucker, he was also a mentally ill inmate who was going to get some hot water for his soup, and I guess maybe mouthed off a bit to deputies, didn't get back to his jail cell as quickly as they like. And we got a video of the cameras that the jails have recorded, this swarm of deputies just depending on him, and they ended up restraining him in such a way that he stopped breathing. And there was a death that happened I believe two or three years prior, again, similar circumstances. And we kind of wondered if someone had looked more closely at that first death, would the same thing have happened to Tucker? Would there have been policy changes that would have prevented Tucker's death?

CARLESS: Yeah, again just an extraordinary series of stories. Of if the listeners haven't read it, they need to get all five. These and go read it. Really great work. But one of the things that struck me about it, you mentioned it, how much higher the death rate is compared to rest of the country. It's high in California, but we're way above the federal level too, right? And that's just extraordinary. I've never stepped foot in -- I've interviewed a couple of people in prison, but never sat in the cells. I just imagine this awful system like out of 14th century England or something. It sounds horrible.

SAUER: Well, especially sad was the man you mentioned a while back. Russel Hartsaw.

DAVIS: He at one point was in protective custody. And that's another category called "keep separate all" which is further protected custody within protected custody. In one point, that was how he was categorized. As I said, mentally ill, physically ill, and elderly, a very vulnerable inmate. Somehow, he -- I guess he made a verbal can to be put in with the general population. And that request was granted, which is striking, given all that was wrong with him. He was transferred into a cell, a dorm-like unit, and within two hours I think of being transferred in, he was killed.

SAUER: Wow. And this was some speculation maybe there was of a death wish to that effect.

DAVIS: Yeah, that's true. But the question that we also have is he had been on probation for a crime, and there were no services for him while he was on probation. He was too old. He had a long, interesting criminal history. He was a bank robber. And his history prevented him from enrolling in some programs. So what needs to be available on the outside to keep folks like him from landing back in jail?

SAUER: Another part of the problem. Andrew, go ahead, you're with the panel.

ANDREW: Great show as usual. I just wanted to call in here, I've actually been there firsthand, unfortunately, a member of the George bailey country club, and what really scared me about it, I've seen guys where, you know -- I've been in the dorm situation, and one person tells you, hey, I heard this guy is a child molester. And a lot of guys sometimes just act on peer pressure. Because if you don't act upon beating this person down, the microscope goes on you. And another scary part, I've seen many inmates get beaten brutally, and it's due to the fact that the education of the deputies that need to be in these places, they're not psychologists, they have no training, they're just high school broughts thrown in and given a badge. And that's really scary.

SAUER: All right, well, thank you so much for the call. I appreciate it. Will?

CARLESS: Yeah, I wanted to ask you, Kelly. I have good friends at the sheriff's deputy. Have they raised any concerns about this or said they're going to look into any of these problems?

DAVIS: No, nothing so far. Even the Citizens' Law Enforcement Review Board, which is a county board that's tasked with overseeing things like jail deaths and allegations of abuse by law enforcement they don't seem very -- to think there's much of a problem either. So hopefully this will trigger something.

CARLESS: Can I make a point? They're just useless at this point. I've asked them about deaths in custody, I asked them to comment on officer-involved shootings, they never comment on anything. They never seem to be interested in anything. Why do we have this group?

DAVIS: At one point, they had a lot of teeth. They put out very in-depth, fantastic reports. But over the years, public records law in California has been challenged in a way that now you pretty much can't get anything having to do with law enforcement. Because they just say it's an ongoing investigation. Even if someone has died, it's an ongoing investigation. So it's tough for CLERB to really talk about what they're working on. But they can offer policy suggestions, they can point out something went wrong here. And they just don't seem to be doing that.

RACINO: Can you just tell us what that group is? What they are?

DAVIS: They have a hired executive director, a county employee, and a couple investigators. Then they have an appointed board, and they respond to complaints from citizens who feel they were mistreated. And then they also are required to investigate every inmate death. And actually we found that there was a period of time where they weren't being told about inmate deaths and they had to say to the sheriff's department, please, we need a better communication here. There was a group of deaths that they didn't get a chance to look into. Some of them suspect, and CLERB was never told about them.

CARLESS: Does the DA investigate those deaths at all? They investigate officer-involved shootings even if somebody is not killed.

DAVIS: No, I think it's only if a law enforcement officer is actually involved.

SAUER: We are looking at some pretty small numbers year to year. I guess we need on these statistics, it's not a real broad database.

DAVIS: Well, they're actually not -- when you look at deaths reported by other counties, an expert I talked to said you shouldn't have two suicides a year. Even that is too much.

SAUER: So that is certainly a red flag. Well, well done, it was a terrific series.


SAUER: Welcome back to the Roundtable on KPBS. I'm Mark Sauer. School bonds are almost as common as playgrounds and flag poles in most districts, but not this tiny Ramona union tied. Ramona is the only district in the county to never pass a bond issue. The funding crunch has caught up with the Ramona district.

CARLESS: They found themselves facing a pretty significant shortfall this year, this coming year, 2013/14. It's about $3.5million. The interesting thing about this district is that they're really indicative and emblematic of how California funds school districts. Basically, if you look at the money that districts get from the state, the base-level funding, that is at this point only enough to pay the staff at these districts. Basically 90% or more of every penny they get is spent paying their staffs. If they have a leaky roof or need to buy computers --

SAUER: Build a new building --

CARLESS: They need to pass bonds. So we've moved past this 2-level funding program for California schools. And most schools pass bonds regularly and have that extra money to spend. Ramona has tried four times to pass a bond, I think, voters have every time said no. And a few years ago, they found themselves with literally leaky roofs in their classrooms, and they had to go out and spend money. So they borrowed money to do that. Now the loans are coming due on that, and they're in big trouble.

SAUER: Why are bonds so unpopular in this one place?

CARLESS: I don't know the answer to that. Basically bonds and increased taxes are less popular in some of the more rural, conservative parts of the county. But at the same time, places like El Cajon and Lakeside have passed bonds. So I really don't know.

SAUER: It's a small district. Do you know how many teachers?

CARLESS: No, I'm afraid. As you said before the show, that's something I'll be looking into.

SAUER: But $3.5 million is a big chunk of change.

CARLESS: It's huge. And the reason this is news right now is because what they've basically asked is they've asked all staff to take a significant salary cut and benefit cut. And the labor unions and the school district got together and spent 18 months trying to figure out a different way forwards. And in the end, the district just had to impose this contract on the labor unions.

RACINO: You said if the stories did take that cut, it wouldn't make much of a different at all, right?

CARLESS: I think you're referring to the quote where it talks about even if we worked for free, it wouldn't get them out of trouble. If teachers take this salary cut, and they have to right now, they've projected they can get through the year. The point of conflict here was that the district wanted employees to take a 3-year deal, so basically sign a contract that said we'll take cuts this year, next year, and the year after. That's why it comes back to the whole California funding thing. There is more money available as a result of passing Prop 30 last year. School districts are going to be handed more money all across the state. The governor is trying to get through something called the local control funding formula, which everybody says will be great for small rural districts like Ramona. And the labor unions have said we don't know how much money we're going to have next year. We're not going to sign a contract saying we're going to take a cut next year.

SAUER: Is it reopen next year?

CARLESS: It seems to come down to the language of the agreement itself. The union wanted specific language that said if we get 10% more funding this year, then this amount of that is going to go straight to employees to backfill those cuts. The district didn't want to do that. They wanted to have wording saying if we get more money, we'll sit back down and talk about it. And they thought that's enough. And the superintendent said look, of course if we get more money, then the employees will get it. But the question is, if that's the case, why didn't you put it in the agreement?

SAUER: Yeah.

CARLESS: And of course San Diego unified is on the tail end of one of these agreements. They made an agreement last year that if more money comes in, then the employees will get it. So they're in the weird situation of getting a lot more money next year, but they don't see much television to go into classrooms and programs because much of it is being used to backfill raises that teachers have negotiated.

SAUER: David?

WAGNER: Getting back to the leaky roofs, how have the Ramona students seen this budget shortfall play out in the classroom?

CARLESS: Well, I have to kind. Confess again, I haven't spent any time in the classrooms. But they're getting the benefits of millions of dollars of new classrooms and facilities. So they've gotten the benefit of this, not only that, but repairs and everything else. Bond money typically these days is used for maintenance and repairs as well.

SAUER: But they've got it from the loans.

CARLESS: These bills are now coming due, and the teachers' gripe in this is we didn't ask you to go and borrow this money and take out these loans. Now you want us to bail you out and pay off those bills?

SAUER: Is there a real divergence in the point of view from what management says caused this $3.5million shortfall and what the teachers are saying?

CARLESS: Everyone pretty much agrees -- California school districts are nowhere near the legal increases they're supposed to be getting from the state. The state has shortchanged districts across California over the last five years. They just simply haven't been paying what they're legally required to do. Of that's put all districts under immense strain. San Diego unified was talking about insolvency last year.

SAUER: For several years, yeah.

CARLESS: This is just kind of Ramona dealing with the same crunch that everyone else is dealing with and not being able to get over the hill to get to the new money coming in from prop 30.

SAUER: It doesn't sound like there's any magic solutions, but the teachers must have a different take.

CARLESS: They may well end up striking. They're holding on a vote on May the7th to authorize the head of the union to call a strike. That would obviously a huge disruption. The district could cave on this issue at some point and renegotiate. But right now they're in a pretty strong position. They've got an imposed contract, exactly what they want, essentially. And so we just have to see how the next few weeks play out.

SAUER: And that's a vote to authorize a strike, not an actual deadline of the strike.

CARLESS: That's right. My understanding is that they authorized the board, the head of the union to -- as and when they see fit to call a strike of the union members. So they're saying you want to call one, we'll vote on whether we're okay with that.

SAUER: Now, what happens in the extraordinary case if they become insolvent? They really can't pay their bills, and there just isn't the money, and they're not going to make ends meet. And the stuff coming in from the state and Prop 30 isn't going to cut it. What's DEFCON 4 in this case?

CARLESS: The state essentially takes over the district. There's a set in stone methodology where the state working with this group from Sacramento comes in and essentially takes over. And the School Board gets kicked out. I believe the School Board only has advisory duties. And the state bureaucrats that come in to run the show have immense power to both overturn union contract, to kick out --

SAUER: All sorts of things get disrupted.

CARLESS: Absolutely. It's only happened a handful of times. The biggest district was in Orange County. I'm forgetting the name.

SAUER: Detroit has been in this situation.

CARLESS: It was the Oakland school district, I believe, taken over by the state.

SAUER: And we call that DEFCON 4 because that's the last thing anybody wants of the

CARLESS: That usually happens when you have a School Board that isn't willing to impose on employees. In this case, they're saying it may be unpopular, but we're going to force everybody to take cuts. I can't imagine that happening in San Diego unified.

SAUER: This isn't the only deficit in the state only though Prop 30 should help things. Is there some fundamental way we should change in how we fund schools?

CARLESS: Credit where credit is due, California people did speak last year, they did decide to spend more money to schools. They decided to tax themselves in the form of a sales tax increase. And the governor has this grandiose plan to ensure -- he's basically got this chart that shows offer the next seven years what he wants to get to in terms of California financing. If you asked me that a year ago, I would have said this is an absolute mess, a disaster, everything else. Prop 30 was a game-changer, it was huge. The local control funding if he gets it through would be a really big deal. So I think the future looks fairly bright for the districts that have managed to hang on in there and keep going.


SAUER: You're back on the Roundtable on KPBS.

(Audio Recording Played)

SAUER: All right! Among those concerned about people working for a livin', notably workers from overseas, are Facebook's mark Zuckerberg. He's one of the high profile CEOs to call for immigration reforms to bring in more high-skilled workers. What has the experience been from such workers themselves? David, you had a chance to interview some of these folks for a feature you did this week. What's an H1B visa?

WAGNER: They're for highly educated people abroad who want to come to the U.S. and work in certain fields that just need their skills. It works by -- companies interested in hiring these people will apply on behalf of them. They're lucky if they get the application in on time and in under the quota, they get to come here and work.

SAUER: So we're talking about highly skilled engineers, software producers.

WAGNER: They tend to be in STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math.

SAUER: And why do employers say they need more of these visas?

WAGNER: To hear it from the companies themselves, they'll tell you that there's a shortage, a skills gap here in the U.S. Meaning that American schools aren't graduating enough citizens in these fields, there aren't enough engineer, programmers, whatever. So the companies need to import them from overseas. That's certainly what mark Zuckerberg is saying with Facebook, and people at Microsoft and IBM, and here in San Diego, Qualcomm.

SAUER: Do we know if that's really true? There aren't enough American high-skilled workers?

WAGNER: Well, I can certainly see a situation that companies face where the most qualified applicant happens to be from overseas. There is a lot of compelling evidence though that the skills gap is exaggerated or not as real as these companies would like you to think. There was a report from the economic policy institute, they lean left but they do some pretty credible work, I think, showing that if those jobs are in such high demand, you would expect the wages to rise. If companies are having a hard time attracting these people, they would want to offer generous salary packages am however, you've seen wages if these fields stagnate. So that doesn't make sense.

SAUER: That was a fascinating part of your story. What are the pluses for the current system, the H1B visas for employers?

WAGNER: Well, employers like these visas for a number of reasons. The visa is very restricting. Workers can come to the U.S. and work for a company here. But their hold on the U.S. is very tenuous. If they lose that job, they've got to go back.

SAUER: So they're inclined to do anything to hang onto that job.

WAGNER: Yeah, and if you're an immigrant, and you want to get a green card, stay long-term, you have to go through your employer again. And then once you're in line and you leave that job, you go to the back of the line. Once you're in one of these positions, you can't really leave.

SAUER: You're stuck.

CARLESS: Is this strictly for technology stuff? Could somebody like a Credenza manufacturer say I need to bring in skilled carpenters or something like that?

WAGNER: In theory, it could work for all fields. In practice, be it's mostly for tech companies, web companies. You're supposed to prove, basically, that we need to bring this person in because no one in the U.S. can do it.

CARLESS: Right. It seems like that would be the same kind of -- you have to offer the same burden of proof whether it was manufacturing or tech jobs, because presumably there are lots of engineers out there. I'm interested in the process of how you prove that. Any idea?

WAGNER: Yeah, well, they have to put the job listing up on American sites for a while and demonstrate somehow that the applicants that have applied for it who are citizens are just not meeting the qualifications.

SAUER: Shane, go ahead, you're with the panel.

NEW SPEAKER: If somebody could comment on the overhead involved with hiring somebody who has a work visa versus a U.S. citizen.

SAUER: Thanks for your call.

WAGNER: Well, companies have to pay thousands of dollars for these visas. So it is a burden on the companies to secure one of them. And there's this mad dash to get the applications in to at the beginning of April every year. This year it was full by April5th. Now they're going to be handing out the visas just by random lottery. So it is a burden on companies.

CARLESS: This is incidentally a massive issue in education, about how do you make sure that companies like Qualcomm have enough skilled engineers five years from now? And I was at a discussion last week where they were talking seriously about this. All the movement in education right now is toward STEM, first of all, and toward giving people the skills to meet the needs of local industries. But I asked the question of the guy from AT&T, and I said is it just Qualcomm and he said no, apparently all across the whole tech sector, there's just this massive shortage of people who have that particular skill set.

SAUER: And you talked to Nathan Fletcher for your story, a politician and candidate for mayor. But he's with Qualcomm now.

WAGNER: He was just frustrated to see so many talented and high-skilled people come to study here in San Diego at schools like UCSD.

SAUER: Right down the road from Qualcomm.

WAGNER: And because there's such a -- because of a cap on H1B visas, a lot of them can't stay. They go back to their home countries.

SAUER: And what about the workers?

WAGNER: Well, the couple I talked to --

SAUER: Tell us who they were a little bit. I know they have very difficult names.

WAGNER: It's this guy Sanpit, and his wife. They're very nice, and in this conversation about immigration reform, it would be hard to meet somebody to say they don't want these kind of people in the country. They plan to settle down here. And I think they're the kind of people we want to settle down here.

SAUER: We've got another caller who would like to join us. David.

DAVID: I just wanted to put in a different opinion. I myself am an IT worker and have been out of work for a couple months. And many of my colleagues in IT as well are looking, but simply can't find work because we are competing with the H1s. And it's not really at a skills level. The prime difference that I see that they have is that they don't have a mortgage. So if they're flying 10,000miles from India, it doesn't matter if they land in LA, San Diego, or Seattle. And they're as consultants, and I'm a consultant myself. Whereas previously you would be able to get a position somewhere and they would have to pay expenses. But now with the rates, we can't compete because they don't have a home here. They don't have a mortgage, a family. They don't have obligations. So they just go wherever.

SAUER: So it's an uneven playing field. We appreciate your call.

WAGNER: Yeah, thanks David. One thing that was striking to me, I put a hypothetical to the people I talked to. I said let's take two applicants applying for the same job, same education, skill set, one is from the U.S. as a consistent, and one would have to come on an H1B visa, which candidate will companies prefer? And they always said the visa candidate.


SAUER: What the caller is talking about, the cost.

WAGNER: Well, companies know if they can get a visa under this tight quota, they know they've got that employee for years, they're not going to go anywhere.

CARLESS: And that's the point you made. The couple who was saying, look, they're not -- those employees are not going to go to their boss and say I'm demanding a pay raise because their boss is going to say, well, are all right, off you go.

SAUER: It sounds like forget about unionization.

CARLESS: Right, right. I think my brother came in on one of these visas. He's a computer guy. He's now in the weird position of having to hire people and is looking very much toward Atlanta. But he's looking toward these visas.