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Working from home not all it is cracked up to be for some US-based Chinese tech workers

Written by South China Morning Post Published on   5 mins read

More than 130 countries have introduced some form of restriction or tightened their border entry requirements.

One has embarked on what he calls a “wandering earth trip” that will take him from China to Dubai and on to San Francisco. Another is up till 3:00 a.m. every night to communicate with her colleagues on the US west coast, while a third is out of a job after being unable to leave China.

These are the struggles faced by Chinese employees of US tech companies after they returned home for the Lunar New Year but were unable to leave because of the US travel ban imposed in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.

“I thought of the possibility [of being fired] when [US president Donald] Trump issued the travel ban,” said Sun, the only Chinese national among 15 employees at a small pharmaceutical startup in California.

“When I received the email, I knew my premonition had come true,” said the 27-year-old chemical engineer. “I was disappointed but not angry. It’s a small firm and my supervisor needed someone to do my work,” he said.

Sun, who earned an annual salary of USD 80,000 working in San Diego, a city he describes as “home,” is now in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin where he found a temporary job giving online English lessons to students for a basic monthly salary of 3,000 yuan (USD 431).

The US was one of the first countries to impose a temporary travel ban on Chinese visitors due to the coronavirus outbreak, with a policy effective February 2 that denied entry to Chinese nationals and other foreigners who had been to the Chinese mainland in the prior 14 days.

Last year, an average of more than 14,000 people traveled to the US from China per day.

More than 130 countries have introduced some form of restriction or tightened their border entry requirements. The novel coronavirus has infected almost 132,000 people worldwide with a death toll approaching 5,000.

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While millions of Chinese have been taking part in the world’s largest telecommuting experiment amid the health crisis, there are difficulties faced by tech employees when working remotely. Lab experiments cannot be done, there is limited access to the company’s database—not to mention the impact on sleep and family life.

The South China Morning Post interviewed US-based Chinese tech workers stuck in China to see how they have been coping. They asked to be identified only by their surnames because they were not authorized to speak publicly about their jobs.

Unlike small startups, tech giants have the financial ability to support employees trapped in China. Zhang, a software engineer working for Google in Silicon Valley, has not been able to access the user data needed to test software code and had to switch to basic development work.

“You need to see [all the success and error records] if you want to fix a bug in your code, but I don’t have the access [from China] now,” said the 29-year-old, who joined a WeChat group with more than 80 other Google employees in a similar situation.

They update each other with information and discuss if they should stay in China or go back to the US via a third country where they would stay for at least two weeks.

Zhang took the plunge and flew to Dubai last week, where he plans to stay for at least 20 days, in order to get back to the US.

Similar problems are faced by 23-year-old Microsoft software engineer Bai, who is stuck in Sanya, Hainan province. For example, to fix network problems, she needs to download a coding database—a process that normally takes a few seconds in the Seattle office.

“Sometimes I wait for 20 minutes and it shows the progress is 60% completed, then it stops processing,” she said of the download attempts from her home in China. “So I had to keep trying and wasted a lot of time.”

“I’m anxious because I invested a lot of time but feel like I’m not doing anything meaningful,” she added.

Still, they are luckier than Sun, the chemical engineer who lost his job. “I spent 80% of my time doing experiments [in the lab] and 2% writing up reports based on the lab results. It’s impossible for me to work remotely,” Sun said. “My job is not like a programmer who can still work [as long as they have] a computer.”

Mainland Chinese-born workers play an important role in the US, accounting for 11.9% of all H1-B visas approved in the year to September 30, 2018, the second largest ethnic group after India, according to a report by the US Department of Homeland Security last year.

Among all H-1B visas, which allow foreigners with specialized skills to temporarily work in the US, computer-related occupations accounted for 66.4%, according to the same report.

There is another challenge for the likes of Zhang and Bai: China is 15 hours ahead of the US west coast, where Google and Microsoft are based.

To communicate with her colleagues, Bai voluntarily works until 3:00 a.m. Beijing time, which is noon in Seattle. “But I don’t join the daily conferences, which are mostly at 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. [China time],” she said. “I think it’s a bit disrespectful to join conferences when I feel sleepy.”

The time difference also affects efficiency. “I have to wait until night-time if I have any questions. If I am very tired I have to wait for another day to get the reply. Communication efficiency is very low,” she said.

American tech companies are now encouraging their employees to telecommute, or in some cases making it mandatory, as the novel coronavirus spreads across the country.

Apple and Alphabet’s Google have advised their North American staff to work from home while Microsoft has told workers in two west coast locations to work from home until March 25 after two employees in Washington state tested positive for coronavirus.

Earlier this week Twitter mandated that its entire global workforce work from home until further notice.

“I was worried about China, but now I’ve started to worry about the place where I worked,” said Bai, who has not yet decided when she will try and go back to Seattle.

It is not all bad news: Bai and Zhang’s salaries are not affected as their company policies allow remote working.

Google has temporarily extended its policy of allowing work from another country from 14 days to 60 days due to the coronavirus, according to Zhang.

Microsoft said it will “continue to monitor the situation and take action to help protect our employees based on the guidance of global health authorities.”

Google declined to comment for this story, but provided an article about how it manages remote work.

In a White House address to the nation on Wednesday local time, US President Donald Trump announced the suspension of all passenger travel from Europe to the US and hinted at a possible early lifting of the travel ban between the US and China.

“We are monitoring the situation in China and in South Korea. And, as their situation improves, we will re-evaluate the restrictions and warnings that are currently in place for a possible early opening,” Trump said.

Meanwhile, Zhang has experienced a further set back while waiting in Dubai. His US visa interview appointment was cancelled without reason.

“I feel like I could write an adventure [novel] about my torturous experience trying to get back to the US,” he quipped in a note on his WeChat Moments feed.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post.


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