WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Facebook agreed Tuesday (Oct 19) to pay up to $14.25 million (S$19.14 million) to settle claims brought by the United States federal government in the waning days of the Trump administration that the company had discriminated against US workers.
The Justice Department sued the company in December, arguing that Facebook had declined to "recruit, consider or hire" qualified US workers for thousands of positions. Instead, prosecutors said, the company gave those jobs to foreign workers who held temporary work visas.
The agreement with the Justice Department included payments of US$4.75 million to the government and as much as US$9.5 million to "eligible victims of Facebook's alleged discrimination", according to a news release.
The combined settlement is the largest ever collected by the agency's civil rights division for violations of the anti-discrimination provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The company also separately settled concerns raised by the Labor Department this year over whether it had violated labour regulations.
The claims were part of an effort by the Trump administration to push the country's biggest tech companies to hire more US workers. The administration tightened the requirements to receive a so-called H-1B visa, which is popular with technology companies hiring foreigners, including increasing the salaries companies needed to pay workers as part of the programme.
The government investigated Facebook for two years, looking into whether the company intentionally favoured workers with H-1B visas and other temporary immigrants over US workers. Prosecutors ultimately said that the company had failed to make more than 2,600 jobs - with an average salary of US$156,000 - as readily available to Americans and other US workers as to foreigners.
"Facebook is not above the law and must comply with our nation's federal civil rights laws, which prohibit discriminatory recruitment and hiring practices," said Ms Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
A Facebook spokesman, Mr Andy Stone, said that the company believed it had met the government standards but that the settlements would allow the company to move forward.
"These resolutions will enable us to continue our focus on hiring the best builders from both the US and around the world and supporting our internal community of highly skilled visa holders who are seeking permanent residence," he said in a statement.
Under the agreement with the Justice Department, Facebook will have to better advertise for some jobs and make it easier for US workers to apply. The separate settlement with the Labor Department requires the company to do more to recruit US workers and to submit to audits.
The monetary value of the settlement is negligible for Facebook. It paid a fine of roughly US$5 billion in 2019 to resolve accusations by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it had abused consumer data. In the second quarter of 2021, it generated US$29 billion in revenue. The jobs in question amounted to only a fraction of Facebook's roughly 63,000 employees.
But the agreements the company reached Tuesday with the federal government show how the social media giant is facing battles with Washington regulators on multiple fronts.
The FTC has accused the company of breaking antitrust laws when it acquired WhatsApp and Instagram, two services the government believes could have become bigger threats to Facebook if they had not been purchased. In recent weeks, lawmakers have called for more rules to protect children who use Facebook products after a former employee of the company said it knew that its product harmed teenagers.
Lawmakers in Washington have long focused on how tech companies use visa programs - particularly the H-1B system - to hire engineers from abroad. The companies and their allies have pushed Congress to expand access to the visas, arguing they help companies bring the most talented engineers to the US. But critics say the companies prefer those engineers to US workers because they command lower salaries.
Former President Donald Trump's administration put the programme under a microscope for years. In 2017, Trump announced he would revamp the programme.
Three years later, the administration temporarily blocked new visas under the H-1B program. It also raised the qualifications needed for foreign workers to access the programme, saying they needed a more specialised degree than was previously needed. The administration also said companies would have to pay the workers a higher minimum salary.
A federal judge ruled against the ban on the visa programme in October 2020, forestalling its effect for business groups that had sued over the change, including a major technology trade association. The Biden administration allowed a Trump-era ban on multiple visa programmes to expire in March.
Facebook's founder and chief executive officer, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, has adopted immigration reform as a cause. He helped to found a group called FWD.us in 2013 that has pushed for changes to the immigration system. And he personally entered the debate over immigration as Mr Trump began his crackdown on foreigners entering the US.
"We are a nation of immigrants, and we all benefit when the best and brightest from around the world can live, work and contribute here," Mr Zuckerberg said in January 2017.