Microsoft's top lawyer informed a U.S. Senator Tuesday that when it comes to its layoffs, the software giant won't be cutting its visa-carrying foreign workers before it cuts U.S. citizens.
Instead, the ax will fall where it's needed, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) general counsel Brad Smith said in a letter today to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
The letter comes in response to a letter from Grassley in late January in which he said he wants to ensure U.S. businesses employ "qualified American workers first before hiring foreign guest workers."
The guest workers in question carry H-1B non-immigrant work visas, which allow non-citizens with necessary skills work in the U.S. for as long as six years. Microsoft, as well as many other technology firms, has been a big proponent of expanding the number of H-1B work visas available each year, citing a lack of comparable U.S. talent.
The issue came to a head shortly after Microsoft on Jan. 22 said that it would undertake its first layoffs in its 34-year history to help it better weather the economic downturn.
CEO Steve Ballmer said the company would cut some 5,000 jobs from its approximately 95,000 employees over the course of an 18-month period, with 1,400 of those taking place immediately. Ballmer also said that new hiring during that period would counterbalance much of the burden of the layoffs, bringing the net job loss to more like 2,000 to 3,000.
Shortly after the news, Grassley sent a letter to Ballmer expressing "concern" that Microsoft would "be retaining foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American employees when it implements its layoff plan," he wrote.
At the time of Microsoft's layoffs, a company spokesperson released a statement that the cuts would impact both U.S. citizens as well as foreign workers.
Tuesday's letter to Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, says much the same thing.
"The 5,000 figure likely will include positions in a large number of countries," Smith wrote. "Given the distribution of our jobs, however, it is likely that the Puget Sound region in Washington state will see the largest number of job eliminations. Of the roughly 1,400 positions that were eliminated in January ... over 800 were in Washington state."
"Although they are a small percentage of our workforce, H-1B workers have long made crucial contributions to Microsofts innovation successes and to our ability to help create jobs in this country," he added.
Smith also said that the number of Microsoft's foreign workers in the U.S. has never exceeded the legal limit of 15 percent of its workforce.
However, Smith also pointed to one of the problems facing U.S. tech companies looking to hire domestically -- the shortage of U.S. citizens who graduate with degrees in computer science and engineering. That shortcoming has long been at the root of U.S. tech firms' calls for increasing the number of available H-1B visas.
"As one recent study found, in 2005, temporary residents earned more than 40 percent of the engineering and computer science degrees at U.S. higher education institutions," Smith wrote. For PhDs, that percentage rose to 59 percent, he added.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.