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Disney Suddenly Cancels Layoffs For Technology Employees


Some 30 technology workers at Disney-ABC Television Group got some bad news at the end of last month. They were being laid off. Not only were they losing their jobs, they were told they'd have to train the people replacing them - immigrants from an outsourcing company. About a week ago, Disney had a change of heart, and those layoffs - they're not happening out. Patrick Thibodeau broke this story. He's senior editor at Computerworld, a website that covers the tech business. Welcome to the program.

PATTRICK THIBODEAU: Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

CORNISH: So, Patrick, to start, we should say that this story actually doesn't start just in the last few weeks, but in the last few months, at a previous layoff back in Orlando. Tell us what happened.

THIBODEAU: In January - January 30 - Disney laid off probably several hundred to 500 people. It had signed some contracts with offshore outsourcing firms. And then some months later, I went in and did a post-mortem on that. I wanted to find out what actually happened there. I had some suspicions because of the firms involved.

So I interviewed employees at Disney who had worked in the information technology department. They told me they had trained their replacements, and the replacements were from India. And they believed that these replacements were on temporary visas. And subsequently, after they trained their replacements, they lost their jobs.

CORNISH: So fast-forward to just a week ago - right? - and there was some news for some technology workers at Disney-ABC Television Group. What happened there?

THIBODEAU: Well, this is a separate division of Disney, but Disney had - on May 28, had told these workers - about 35 of them - that they were getting laid off. So they had gotten their notice, and they had already begun training the replacements because their work was being transferred to India. But in the interim, after that notice, the New York Times published its piece, which looked at the Orlando layoffs and did a very good job of capturing some of the anger of the employees who were displaced. And that really put this issue on more of a national stage than it has been in some time.

So in some way, it's believed that Disney went ahead and changed - had a change of heart because of this publicity - Disney has not acknowledged that or said that, but that's just speculation - and rescinded the playoffs at Disney-ABC. And the employees were basically given a reprieve and said they would not lose their jobs.

CORNISH: What have you heard from those employees since? I mean, have they talked about this threat of layoffs?

THIBODEAU: They're guarded. The employees at ABC-Disney are guarded. Imagine being told you must walk the gangplank. You are now on the gangplank, and then they say never mind. Get off the gangplank. Are you going to hold a victory party? No. You're going to be wary that it's just going to happen to you again.

CORNISH: The broader issue at play here is the use of temporary visas. It's called an H-1B visa. Talk about what that visa allows and Disney's connection to it.

THIBODEAU: The H-1B visa is largely used by offshore outsourcing firms. It's a temporary visa. It's a nonimmigrant visa. Disney hired contractors who came into their operations at Park and Resorts, some of whom were likely on these visas. And that's according to the employees, who said that - one in particular I interviewed told me that the person that he was training had just arrived from India not too long ago. So these are people who are here to do a specific job and return home.

CORNISH: This isn't a story about a huge number of layoffs, but what's the take away for you?

THIBODEAU: I think it's important to tell the stories of these workers because in Washington today, there is a concerted effort to deny that this happens. The Chamber of Commerce and other organizations are telling lawmakers that the idea that the H-1B visa displaces IT workers is a myth, and it's simply not true. It's - there's a denial going on.

And the workers are horribly disadvantaged because they need to sign these severance agreements to keep their medical and to get their - you know, all their pay and benefits as they exit. But these severance agreements often include non-disparagement clauses, which could penalize them if they speak out. But even if those clauses don't exist in the contracts, these workers are worried that if they speak out, they're going to be blacklisted and stigmatized and unable to find a decent job afterward.

CORNISH: Patrick Thibodeau, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

THIBODEAU: You're welcome. Thank you for having me on.

CORNISH: Patrick Thibodeau is senior editor at Computerworld. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.