Optional Practical Training Information for Employers
Note: This FAQ currently deals only with rules and processes on the new 24-month OPT STEM extension.
On May 10, 2016, a new set of federal rules became effective pertaining to what is typically post-graduation employment of international students in the U.S. on an F-1 visa. The new rules contain new requirements and obligations for employers. These rules impact ONLY those international students who are eligible for the 24-month STEM extension; regular 12-month OPT has not changed. This FAQ is meant to help explain the background of the rules, the role of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) at the University of Iowa, and help clarify the new processes.
You may also consult the official Department of Homeland Security “STEM OPT Hub” website at https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/stem-opt-hub.
What is the new rule?
International students in the U.S. on an F-1 visa have historically had an option to request permission to remain in the U.S. for a limited period of time after completion of the degree program to gain experience working in the area in which they just received the degree. This is called Optional Practical Training, or OPT. Traditionally students in any field may apply for up to 12 months of OPT. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security added a new option for students in some STEM fields where they could apply for an extension of an additional 17-months in specific qualifying circumstances. On March 10, 2016 this STEM Extension rule was updated, expanding the extension period to 24 months and adding new Training Plan requirements, evaluations, and employer responsibilities.
The new rule carries requirements for employers that never existed before, so there will be a learning process for employers as well as students. It is important to note that the academic institutions do not have any flexibility with this rule as it is mandated by federal law.
What is the role of the University of Iowa in this process? If my employee has already graduated, why must the university be involved?
When someone enters the U.S. on an F-1 student visa, the host institution, in this case the University of Iowa, is responsible for maintaining, overseeing, and reporting on the student’s immigration record. This includes the period of time during OPT – even though the student has graduated, they are still connected to the home institution by immigration ties for the duration of the OPT.
In order for a college or university to host international students, the U.S. government must designate individuals on campus to serve as “Designated School Officials,” or DSOs. These are officials on campus responsible for monitoring student compliance with federal immigration regulations and authorizing certain benefits a student may be eligible for. In some cases the DSO must make recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security and facilitate the application process, such as occurs with OPT – it is not possible for a student or employer to apply for OPT on their own without the assistance of a DSO at the home institution. The job of the DSO for OPT STEM extensions is to issue updated immigration documentation, verify the application content including the Training Plan I-983 and I-765, receive updates from the student and employer over the course of the 24-month OPT period, report the information to Homeland Security, and monitor student compliance with other immigration rules.
At the University of Iowa, the advising staff of International Student and Scholar Services are the ones on campus authorized by the U.S. government to handle student immigration issues on behalf of the institution. Background checks are performed by both the federal government as well as the University of Iowa. Any information pertaining to a student’s situation, including OPT application material, is stored in a secure program accessible only by authorized staff. The information is not shared with any entity other than the Department of Homeland Security as per their requirements. As a result, ISSS wishes to assure employers that their information, as well as the student’s/former student’s, is kept confidential.
How can ISSS assist me?
ISSS will be able to provide assistance to employers of students/former students applying for an OPT STEM extension in the following ways:
- Create guides to complement Department of Homeland Security instructions on how to fill out the I-983 sections for employers
- Receive and review the forms I-983 Training Plan and I-765, and create updated I-20 for OPT extension prior to student submission to the Department of Homeland Security
- Serve as a contact for the employer to notify if changes occur such as a student’s employment ending early or job duties changing significantly
- Serve as a resource for employers to ask general questions about the OPT STEM extension criteria and process. (Please note that because of federal privacy laws we will not be able to share specific details about a student’s situation, including degrees/major area, when a degree was conferred, whether a student has applied for OPT yet, OPT starting/ending dates, etc. These are all items a student must share directly with an employer, or give ISSS written authorization to discuss their situation with the employer.)
What are my obligations as an employer?
- Be enrolled in the U.S. government’s E-Verify program (see more details below).
- Complete Form I-983 and Training Plan with your OPT STEM employee. (Sections 3-6 of this form must be completed as part of the application process for an OPT STEM extension. See the specific instructions below.)
- Pay the OPT STEM employee a wage commensurate with that of a U.S. worker in the same or similar position.
- Have sufficient knowledgeable/experienced staff and other resources to provide the needed supervision and oversight to follow the Training Plan.
- Ensure the OPT STEM employee is not displacing U.S. workers.
- Communicate significant changes in the employment situation to the University of Iowa – including major changes to the Training Plan/job duties or early end of employment.
- Participate in two annual reviews of the OPT STEM employee’s performance, following the goals and objectives specified in the Training Plan/I-983. These reviews must be submitted by the student to International Student and Scholar Services.
How do I complete my portions of the Training Plan/I-983?
The Department of Homeland Security provides specific instructions on completing the I-983 here.
University of Iowa Employers: If you are a department or office of the University of Iowa, please use the following details when completing part three of the I-983 (this is relevant ONLY to the University of Iowa as employer):
- Employer Identification Number: 42-6004813
- NAICS Code: 611310
- Number of employees: This information is updated monthly. Please go to https://hr.uiowa.edu/administrative-services and click on the link at the bottom of the page to open the document "University of Iowa Employment Profile." Choose the number for "Total Headcount of All Employees."
- Who should sign page 3? Whoever is serving as the direct supervisor of the OPT applicant.
- NAICS Code: If you do not know this, you can search the NAICS database here.
- Who should sign page 3? Whoever is serving as the direct supervisor of the OPT applicant.
Why is this Training Plan/I-983 necessary?
The purpose of OPT has never been to simply provide a direct route to employment, rather that it be a limited experiential learning opportunity for some international students who receive degrees in the U.S. Hence the new rules are really reinforcing what has always been the intention of the program, as reflected by the name: “Optional Practical Training.”
The I-983 requires that the OPT STEM employees and employers work together to design a system of educational goals and objectives that can be met during the course of the employment. It also requires information on wages and hours, which both protect the OPT STEM employees as well as domestic employees and also helps address concerns about “lower paid” foreign workers potentially disadvantaging American workers.
What is e-Verify? What if I am not currently signed up?
E-Verify is a free and simple to use web-based system that electronically verifies the employment eligibility of newly hired employees. E-Verify is a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) oversees the program.
E-Verify works by allowing participating employers to electronically compare employee information taken from the Form I-9 (the paper-based employee eligibility verification form used for all new hires) against more than 425 million records in SSA's database and more than 60 million records in DHS immigration databases. Results are returned in seconds.
You may sign up for E-Verify here.
Why do you need my e-Verify number?
Students applying for the OPT STEM extension are required to be employed by an employer participating in e-Verify. As part of this process, the immigration advising staff at the University of Iowa are required to confirm this, which is done by completing the appropriate sections of the immigration document I-765.
International Student and Scholar Services will review the I-765 to ensure all sections are appropriately completed and that the employer is part of e-Verify. We also must take this step before we can issue an updated I-20 immigration document, which is required as part of the OPT STEM application.
A student whose employer is not enrolled in e-Verify does not qualify to receive the OPT STEM extension.
What are “site visits?”
This is a new provision in the rules that indicate the Department of Homeland Security has the right to conduct site visits to employers who have an employee on an OPT STEM extension. They state that advance notice will be given to employers before a site visit may occur, unless DHS has reason to believe there is noncompliance with the agreed-upon terms of OPT STEM. We suspect that these will be rare occurrences, but will update this site if we learn otherwise.
What types of employment are not permitted?
- Self-employment and sole proprietorship
- Volunteer/unpaid positions
- Brief employment with multiple employers, such as occurs through contracting
- Working for temp or placement agencies or consulting firms (see the section below)
- In order to qualify for OPT STEM extension, the student must be a “bona fide” and direct employee of the employer who completes the I-983
- OPT STEM students cannot be supervised by another student who is on OPT or STEM OPT
Specific guidance on employment by staffing, temp agencies, and consulting firms
In May 2018 USCIS issued updated guidance on the role a staffing or temp agency can play for students applying for STEM OPT. This can be a very complex and confusing topic, and ISSS is not always able to determine whether a specific employment situation will meet the criteria of USCIS, nor is it our job to do so. We can attempt to help students and employers interpret the guidance, but ultimately the decision on whether an employment situation qualifies is at the discretion of USCIS. That guidance put restrictions on situations in which a student on STEM OPT could work at an off-site location.
In August 2018, updated guidance was issued that makes it appear off-site work IS still possible in some cases, indicating "at a site other than the employer’s principal place of business as long as all of the training obligations are met." That site should be consulted, ISSS is unable to assess whether a particular case complies with off-site requirements or not, and the final decision lies with USCIS.
Who do I contact if I have questions?
You may contact International Student and Scholar Services at email@example.com or by calling 319-335-0335.