How Abbott Exported Jobs to India Yet Managed to Protect Its Reputation by Silencing Americans | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News | Scoop.it

Marco Peña was among about 150 technology workers who were laid off in April by Abbott Laboratories, a global health care conglomerate with headquarters here. They handed in their badges and computer passwords, and turned over their work to a company based in India. But Mr. Peña, who had worked at Abbott for 12 years, said he had decided not to sign the agreement that was given to all departing employees, which included a nondisparagement clause.

 

Mr. Peña said his choice cost him at least $10,000 in severance pay. But on an April evening after he walked out of Abbott’s tree-lined campus here for the last time, he spent a few hours in a local bar at a gathering organized by technology worker advocates, speaking his mind about a job he had loved and lost.

 

“I just didn’t feel right about signing,” Mr. Peña said. “The clauses were pretty blanket. I felt like they were eroding my rights.”

 

Leading members of Congress from both major parties have questioned the nondisparagement agreements, which are commonly used by corporations but can prohibit ousted workers from raising complaints about what they see as a misuse of temporary visas. Lawmakers, including Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest-ranking Senate Democrat, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, have proposed revisions to visa laws to include measures allowing former employees to contest their layoffs.

 

Lawyers said the paragraph Mr. Peña and other workers object to in their separation agreements is routine in final contracts with employees who are paid severance as they leave, whether they were laid off or resigned voluntarily.

 

“It’s a very, very common practice,” said Sheena R. Hamilton, an employment lawyer at Dowd Bennett in St. Louis who represents companies in workplace cases. “I’ve never recommended a settlement that didn’t have a clause like that.”

 

But former Abbott employees said the provisions had stopped them from speaking openly with elected officials or appearing at congressional hearings.

 

“It is very frustrating that you can’t share your story with the public,” said one former Abbott manager, who had worked for the company for 13 years, rising to an important supervisory position. He had prepared a 90-page manual for his foreign replacements showing how to perform every detail of his work. With a disabled child who requires medical care, he said he had to take his severance and its nondisparagement clause, since it extended his medical benefits. So he asked to remain anonymous.

 

“I’ve been laid off before, I can understand that,” he said. “But these visas were meant to fill in gaps for resources that are hard to find. This time the company actually asked me to transfer my knowledge to somebody else. That changes the equation.”

 

According to federal rules, temporary visas known as H-1Bs are for foreigners with “a body of specialized knowledge” not readily available in the labor market. The visas should be granted only when they will not undercut the wages or “adversely affect the working conditions” of Americans.

 

But in the past five years, through loopholes in the rules, tens of thousands of American workers have been replaced by foreigners on H-1B and other temporary visas, according to Prof. Hal Salzman, a labor force expert at Rutgers University.

 

At Abbott, executives announced in February that technology jobs would be taken over by the Indian company Wipro. Senator Durbin, who is from Illinois, criticized the layoffs and said Abbott’s nondisparagement clause was “overly broad.”

 

According to a copy of the agreement, that clause read, in part: “You agree to make every effort to maintain and protect the reputation of Abbott and its products and agents.”

 

A spokesman for Abbott, Scott Stoffel, said the changes were part of its efforts to “remain globally competitive and a strong U.S. employer.” He said the company would retain “the vast majority” of its tech jobs in the United States. Nondisparagement clauses like Abbott’s are “very common” in severance agreements, he said.