Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

Moving to the US for work, yes or no?

I’ve been negotiating employment with a listed company in New York City for over 8 months now. The job involved moving to NYC. This was appealing at the start of the process. The prospect turned less appealing because of the evolving political situation, and also because of the problems with housing and transit in the City for people with mobility impairments. It appears that the job isn’t going to work out after all. I am very disappointed, as I’m sure the company’s folks are as well.

Sign posts at a border crossing between Canada and the United States

I spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of the job and all the elements surrounding it. And today, after a lot of thought, reflection, and even anguish, I decided I was not prepared to move my household to New York City in the current socio-political climate. I have a lot of experience successfully working remotely, so I proposed to the employer that I could work remotely, or even be in the office 2 or 3 days a week and work remotely from Montreal the rest of the time. It finally became clear that we could not come to an agreement on that. The position had been advertised as office-based, and that’s what they really want. They haven’t been willing to budge.

Pros and cons

We’ve discussed the pros and cons. Researched all aspects of the move we could think of. Calculated moving related expenses and comparative cost of living in NYC and in Montreal. The more we dug, the more we realized there were increasingly complex ramifications and implications.

Pros

  • Good company to work for
  • Very interesting job tasks
  • Opportunity to make a positive change in the lives of the company’s end users
  • Being in a vibrant city
  • Stable income

Cons

  • Work visa uncertainty
  • High expenses
  • Housing concerns
  • Commuting concerns
  • Political situation

Working rights

In order for me to work in the United States, I need a work permit of some sort. I was granted US Permanent Residency (Green Card) 20 years ago, but voluntarily gave it up when I moved to New Zealand. So I can’t use that. The H1-B visas have been slashed by the current administration, and TN visas don’t apply for the type of work I would have done with this employer.

We organized the documentation and applied for an O-1 visa. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has deemed me to be an individual who possesses extraordinary ability in my field. I was granted the O-1 visa. Yay! That process alone took time. But it finally happened and I could work for that employer. And I send a particular note of thanks to those who helped make the O-1 visa happen – you know who you are!

However, there is a lot of talk of changes to visas, even some talks of retroactively re-evaluating the criteria of already granted visas. What if a few months after we’ve moved, the administration decides to retroactively change the criteria and decides I no longer qualify because I don’t have a Nobel prize, or some other fanciful concept?

Housing

It won’t be a big surprise to most people that housing is exorbitantly priced in NYC. What people may not realize is that finding wheelchair friendly housing is next to impossible, regardless of rent prices.

Accessibility

We have been looking at housing options for nearly 6 months now, and haven’t come up with very much at all. Today, a quick search for “accessible housing” near that employer’s office yielded only 4 results. The closest was 5.6 miles from the office. The next closest one was 35 miles! Granted, there are many housing search sites, but those results are representative of searches we’ve conducted.

A lot of the buildings are older, with no elevators – it’s walk-up all the way! The newer buildings with level entry and elevators appear to be the more expensive ones.

A wheelchair user talks about the difficulties she’s had finding accessible housing in NYC, stating it’s taken her over a year finding housing last year.

As for dedicated accessible housing, I’ve seen waiting list of over 10 years to get into some buildings! In any case, I would not qualify for the income requirements for most of the housing authorities offering accessible housing.

Service dog

As many of my regular readers will know, I have a service dog. It appears that a lot of apartment owners in NYC have strict no pet policies. In theory, since a service dog isn’t a pet, there shouldn’t be a problem. In practice, and knowing from personal experience trying to find housing with a service dog when I lived in Chicago, IL, apartment managers are very prompt to say the apartment isn’t available after all, or want to jack up the rent, or generally cause issues, even though it is illegal for them to do so.

Housing affordability

We’ve seen studio apartments for rent for $3,000 per month, with no private bathroom. The prospect of moving into an overpriced studio or even a tiny one bedroom apartment doesn’t appeal at all, considering we downgraded from a large house with a 1300 Square foot back garden when we left New Zealand into apartment living in Montreal a few years ago. Two adults and a large dog living in a tiny apartment would be a significant step back in our lifestyle and quality of life.

To find larger dwelling at a more affordable price, we expanded our search. You have to go a long way out before you find anything viable. Which leads us into the next significant barrier: commuting to work.

Commute to work

Getting myself to work would involve some kind of public transit. Reading about people’s experience commuting to work by public transit is not reassuring. People say it can take over an hour for a fairly straightforward commute within the greater New York area. It is apparently not unusual for people to spend a couple hours each way commuting to work.

Subway

The subway is, from all accounts, so packed at rush hour that people often opt to wait for a later train. As a wheelchair user, concerned for the safety of my service dog, getting on trains that are so full is a real worry.

But that’s a risk that can’t even happen unless you’re able to get into the subway system in the first place. In April 2017, the MTA was sued for their lack of accessibility in the subways. There are too few elevators, and the elevators that exist break down too often. 80% of stations are not usable by people with mobility impairments.

Busses

That leaves taking the bus. Busses are, in theory, more accessible than the subway. I’ve ridden the busses in Chicago, where the CTA has done a lot of work to increase accessibility (thanks to the efforts of disability rights advocates). I regularly ride the busses in Montreal. My experience tells me that busses are as packed at rush hour as subways, and the ramps in busses are notoriously unreliable. Also, people have been hurt on those MTA bus ramps.

Political climate

All those logistical issues could be worked through. But the current political climate, and the actions of the current administration, cause significant concerns, particularly for someone coming in the country to legally work on a non-immigrant visa.

When we started talking about my employment with that company, the inauguration of the current government hadn’t happened. The more time passes, the more the situation deteriorates. I won’t go into deep details about it, but anyone who has been following current events should understand what I’m talking about.

In February, I thought “they are playing silly”. In April, I thought “they are being REALLY silly”. By June I could only shake my head, speechless. But let’s face it, it went well beyond silliness really fast.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is the the recent talks of nuclear strikes against North Korea. Will it amount to anything? I certainly hope not. Some news outfits say it won’t amount to much. Others say that the world has never been closer to nuclear war. It’s certainly hard to tell.

As an outsider considering moving to the United States, these events are not reassuring.

Final decision

So, with all that information, and having pondered all the factors, I have decided that I can’t move my household to New York. Should the situation change in the future, I’d happily reconsider, because I’m still excited about the job. I still think it would be both fun and challenging to work there, and I believe I could make a real difference to the employer and their end users. In the words of the Dragon: “For these reasons, I’m out. It’s a no from me”.