Expat Series – What to look for when negotiating your compensation ?

Important note : this post, as every other post on the subject, is my personal experience as an H1-B immigrant. I can’t help you get a visa, I can’t help you find a sponsor, so please don’t ask me for any help regarding your personal situation. I’m not an immigration lawyer or expert.

My employer contacted me out of the blue. I had sent my resume months before, using a friend’s referral, but there was no open position. Then one evening, I got an email from HR, asking me for a phone interview.

I was thoroughly unprepared. She called me the next day, and boy, was that a lot of fun. Having a pre-interview, in English, on the phone, about a job in another continent, is like your first time biking without the assist wheels.I spent the next few days getting ready (read: scrambling) for the real interviews to follow, including how job interviews work in the US, technical stuff, and most importantly, what to talk about when it came to salary, benefits and relocation. The first two is what I’m going to outline in this post. You can find a lot of online resources about the job interview process in the US, so I won’t get there (plus I only have that one experience).

 Benefits

If they ask you about your salary expectations,  you should probably deflect the question by telling them you would like to talk about benefits first. The reason for this is, your salary expectations might vary a lot, depending on what kind of benefits the company does or does not offer. Keep in mind your salary is only a fraction of your total compensation, and this is what you should focus on. You may also be able to get a number out of them without having to disclose yours first, which is always nice.

So what benefits are we talking about and why are they important ?

Health Insurance

This one is immensely important. When you come from a country with a high quality, but cheap, health system, you’re in for a surprise. Everything here is extremely expensive, and hidden costs are everywhere. You need health insurance. Most big companies offer a subsidized plan, so ask about it.

  • Coverage details
  • Total cost for you and your family
  • Deductible and coinsurance
  • Max out-of-pocket amount

If they don’t offer health insurance, you will have to insure yourself, and that will most probably cost you hundreds of dollars a month. Shop around to get an idea of the cost for you and your family.

Retirement

In the US, there are (AFAIK) two main sources of retirement income. Social Security, which is what we call in French “retraite par répartition”, just like ours, and your own savings (“retraite par capitalisation”). There’s also pensions offered by some employers, but they’re getting rare.

Social security is a non-brainer. You pay taxes, and when you retire, you get some income. Just remember that you need to work in the US for 10 years before you’re eligible for it.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans

But it’s not enough, and you have to save some of your income to complement it. These savings will be invested, and hopefully grow over the years. If you’re interviewing for a big company, chances are that they will offer a tax-advantaged retirement plan. Most small companies don’t offer these, though. In the private sector, they’re called 401(k). There are different variations of these, depending on whether you work for a private company or in the public sector, or depending on the size of the company.

You can contribute to the account by direct deductions from your gross income on each paycheck. Which means, any such deduction will reduce your gross income, and as such, your tax burden. You will pay taxes on it after retirement (when you withdraw the money).

What you also want to know is : does the employer match those contributions ? This means that the employer will match a fraction of every dollar you contribute. That’s free money. Take it.

If they don’t offer such a plan, or no match, adjust your salary expectations.

Pension

They’re much less common than they used to be, but they’re worth mentioning. An employer-sponsored pension plan is considered a pretty good benefit these days.

Fringe benefits

They can be a lot of different things :

  • life insurance, other insurances
  • company car
  • on-site gym
  • etc

Salary

This is pretty standard, but since we’re talking about working in another country you’re not necessarily familiar with, you need to do your homework first.

  • Average salary for your industry and location (you can use sites like Glassdoor)
  • Cost of living in the area. $100K won’t get you as far in NYC or San Francisco than it will in the Midwest. Look at statistics, and real estate sites like Zillow and Trulia to get an idea of rents. Trulia also shows a crime level map of each property.
  • How much do you need to make up for benefits company does not offer.

Visa considerations

Bench pay

If you’re going to work for a consulting company, ask them about bench pay. Some of them do not pay you when you’re not working for a client. This is illegal, and could get you in trouble with the immigration services. Research the company, and stay far far away from these (look at immigration forums for stories).

Spouse’s income

Another important consideration a lot of people don’t think about until it’s too late. Most (if not all) employment-based visas (H1, L1…) do not allow the visa holder’s spouse to work.

While it’s possible for the spouse of a L1 visa holder to obtain a work authorization after a while, it is not, ever, for the spouse of an H1-B visa holder, until they get a green card. That can be a big hit on the household income, both in the short term and the long term. If you’re going to lose one income, make sure you make enough to support your family. And make sure your spouse is ok with that.

Remember that getting a green card will take a few years in the best scenario, but for some of us (Indians and Chinese people), it can take 12 or more years. That’s a lot of lost income, and, maybe more importantly, years of career advancement that will never come back. They’re also not contributing to social security or saving for retirement during that time.

If you have that option, a L1 visa is almost always better than a H1-B.

For French citizen, you may want to look into the CFE offerings (Caisse des Français à l’Étranger) so he/she can still contribute to the French retirement system. They also provide health insurance, which may be an alternative to private US insurance, but keep in mind you’re getting reimbursed based on the French costs.

No side hustle

If you’re on H1-B or L1 visa, remember these are employer-specific, job-specific and location-specific.

That means a lot of very important things, but as far as income is concerned, it means you are not authorized to work for anyone else (including yourself, and including for example ads and referrals on your blog). So you want to make sure your salary can pay for your needs.


Here you go, some ideas to get you started. Do your homework, get familiar with the US system. My advice is to open an Excel sheet, and list all your projected income (after tax) and costs (make an estimated budget, include everything plus a small margin of error), to see what’s the minimum you need to earn. Take that, and the average salaries for your job, experience and location, and you will be able to come up with a bunch of numbers :

  • The absolute minimum you can accept
  • What you should be getting at least
  • What would be really nice

Then negotiate !

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