(TNS) — In a move that could spread to other universities, about 80 information tech workers at UC San Francisco are facing layoffs and have begun training their replacements -- lower-paid tech workers from an Indian outsourcing firm.
The outsourcing, laid out in a $50 million contract with Indian employment firm HCL Technologies, is unusual among public institutions, experts say. The school expects to save $30 million over five years.
"I don't know of any other university that's done this," said Ron Hira, a Howard University professor who studies immigration and outsourcing. "At some point, you start to cross these ethical lines."
The majority of the outsourced work will be done in India. Additional IT staff may be brought to the UCSF campus from overseas on H-1B visas, according to public documents.
Employees and advocates are criticizing the move, saying it will leave the university and the UCSF Medical Center staff with inferior service and could endanger medical data. The UCSF workers, due to lose their jobs in February, are training their replacements, sometimes via videoconferencing to India.
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren on Tuesday asked University of California President Janet Napolitano to reverse the decision. Lofgren wrote that replacing some of the workers with H-1B visa holders would be a misuse of the visa.
"I think it is proper to expect our major public institutions, such as the University of California, to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law," Lofgren said.
The congresswoman added that the outsourcing plan "raises serious public policy concerns" about patient safety and privacy.
Keith Pavlik, a UCSF employee and member of the local University Professional & Technical Employees union, said the guild is trying to organize some of the non-union IT employees.
"It is an attempt to experiment with privatization and outsourcing," Pavlik said. "Ultimately, it will fail and it should fail."
Outsourcing in Silicon Valley businesses dates back decades. Russell Harrison, lobbyist for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) USA, said in the past 10 years employment contractors have steadily increased their control of the H-1B program. Many of the transfers are in the private sector and affect small groups of employees.
"They can replace just about any IT job with H-1B workers," he said. "It's obviously a major issue."
UCSF offers graduate degrees in medicine, nursing, dentistry and pharmacy and has a $5.4 billion annual budget, with about two-thirds earmarked for employee salaries and benefits. Administrators say the university faces fiscal challenges.
"We're under a great deal of pressure," Joe Bengfort, chief information officer at UCSF, told employees at a staff meeting earlier this year, according to a video of the meeting. "Outsourcing is not a silver bullet and we don't treat it as such, but it's probably the most difficult thing we've done."
The cuts amount to almost 20 percent of the university's IT staff and fall heavily on back-office operations, according to a presentation made to employees.
The school has also contracted with cybersecurity firm FireEye and Dell for other IT functions.
In a statement, the university said the new contracts "will not only increase savings but also strengthen cyber security and enhance IT quality and consistency."
A University of California spokeswoman said that no other campuses or departments in the UC system are considering similar moves. The UC system consists of 10 campuses, including UCSF.
The UCSF cuts include 49 career employees, 30 contractors and 18 vacant positions left unfilled. Career employees will receive up to six months' severance, based on service time.
Several UCSF employees said in interviews that many of the workers getting cut are veteran IT workers with at least a decade at the university.
Audrey Hatten-Milholin began in the IT department at UCSF in 1999 and has received several promotions, regular raises and awards. Like many of her colleagues, she said, she left a job and higher salary at a private company for more stable hours at UCSF. The university has provided a supportive workplace while she raised her two children, she said.
Hatten-Milholin, 54, received notice in July. "I was shocked and I was hurt," said Hatten-Milholin, a network systems architect. "It's pretty depressing."
Napolitano, testifying before Congress when she was President Barack Obama's secretary of homeland security, criticized outsourcing and the abuse of H1-B visas. "Our top obligations are to American workers," Napolitano told a Senate panel in May 2009, and "making sure American workers have jobs."
Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the Napolitano's office, declined to address the testimony.
"UCSF, which is self-supporting, operates in an extremely competitive health care environment," Klein said. She added that UCSF has 24,100 employees and has deep ties to the community through education and research efforts, and care for the poor.
UC Berkeley Chief Information Officer Larry Conrad told employees in an email that the university was aware of UCSF's plans but would not outsource its services.
"The UCSF effort is indeed an ambitious undertaking," Conrad wrote. "Candidly, I am not aware of any major university in the country which has successfully implemented such a substantive IT outsourcing initiative."
The move is similar to layoffs at Disney and Southern California Edison last year, where employees were forced to train their lower-paid replacements. Disney laid off about 250 IT workers, although some were brought back in different roles. Southern California Edison planned to pare about 500 workers through layoffs and attrition to outsource its operations.
More than a decade ago, the UCSF Medical Center contracted out its medical transcription. In 2003, a Pakastani transcriber threatened to post confidential patient records unless she received more money. The threat was eventually withdrawn.
©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.