Just what we need. jackbooted government thugs coming around on a regular basis checking the papers of all an employers employees.


Who is checking workers' papers? Businesses resist tough penalties for hiring where ID doubts exist

Mary Jo Pitzl and Yvette Armendariz The Arizona Republic Feb. 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Resistance from businesses has blunted efforts in the Legislature to curb undocumented immigration by penalizing employers.

The bill most likely to pass this session appears to be one that targets only employers who pay in cash and avoid any formal hiring process.

Efforts to require more thorough document checks faded amid employers' arguments that such efforts would be time-consuming and error-filled, and that checks are the responsibility of the federal government.

Beyond concern about the complexity of deeper document checks is the worry about what tougher checks could do to the availability of low-wage workers. Many employers continue to struggle to fill jobs that require manual labor.

"I don't have people walking in my door saying, 'I want a job,' " said Ron Busby, president of American Janitorial Services. He pays $6.75 to $7 an hour for janitorial jobs.

Arizona's population is estimated to be 8 percent undocumented, and foreign-born Latinos labor in low-wage jobs throughout the economy.

No Arizona-specific numbers are available, but nationally, nearly one in five construction workers is a foreign-born Hispanic. One in four agricultural workers and one in every three workers in grounds maintenance and housekeeping is a foreign-born Hispanic, according to a 2004 study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

However, federal government citations of employers have dropped precipitously since 1999.

An effort to crack down on undocumented immigration by targeting employers long has been favored by some conservative Republicans and Democrats who want to right an imbalance they say punishes only immigrants. The idea got a shot of adrenaline last month from Gov. Janet Napolitano. In her State of the State address, she endorsed sanctions on employers who "knowingly" hire undocumented workers.

Seven weeks later, the Legislature is focusing on those employers who hire workers under the table, pay cash only and avoid all the legalities and paperwork of a formal process.

Such activities are illegal, but backers say HB2823 would stiffen penalties and provide money for enforcement.

This focus on the cash-only economy shifts attention from a controversial proposal to require employers to verify the validity of their hires' Social Security numbers against a federal database. Currently, employers have to fill out I-9 forms and review documents to see if they appear authentic. No checking is required.

Employers across the board have resisted the idea of vouching for the work eligibility of their hires for a variety of reasons: They are not immigration officers, such checks are the responsibility of the federal government, the federal database is untested on a broad scale and underfunded to handle queries from thousands of employers.

"Let's not make responsible employers policemen without the proper tools," Joe Sigg, government affairs director of the Arizona Farm Bureau, told state senators earlier this month.

Business owners say they want to have a legal workforce, and they are not trying to flout the law. They follow requirements of the I-9 forms and review required documents.

But many of those documents are faked, and frustration at the lack of federal enforcement has led to proposals for state sanctions.

Any crackdown also could make the case that low-wage jobs could be filled better through an expanded guest-worker program.

No federal oversight

A 2004 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed a virtual halt in notices of intent to fine employers for hiring violations. Only three notices were issued in 2004, the latest year for which statistics are available, compared with 417 in 1999.

Ginny McMinn, president of McMinn HR, said some businesses ignore the 20-year-old federal rules because it gives them a competitive advantage in their industry.

"It undermines our wage structure," she said of hiring undocumented workers willing to take lower pay. "If only authorized workers are able to take those jobs, demand would exceed supply."

The domino effect could mean labor shortages, higher prices because of higher wages and slower service, many predict. Recently, U.S. Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral said in a speech at Arizona State University that a rush to purge the nation of undocumented workers would wreak havoc on the workplace and result in "$10 tomatoes."

Economic boon?

Politicians can forget about the contributions immigrants make to Arizona's growing economy, said Julian Nabozny, who runs five McDonald's franchises and says he follows the federal rules for employee identification.

Immigrants build homes, wash cars, clean buildings and pick crops, and in return for the income earned, they are paying taxes and buying food, homes and clothing, he said.

"Do they want the state to suffer?" he asked. "It's amazing how much we (as a state) stand to lose."

Most business owners who talk on the record don't focus on such arguments, instead insisting they want to have a legal workforce but that to make employers double as immigration agents goes too far.

Bill Konopnicki sees the debate from his post as a Republican state lawmaker from Safford as well as the operator of several McDonald's restaurants in southeastern Arizona.

Last spring, he had his staff try out the federal Basic Pilot Program, the employment-authorization program being touted by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix.

Konopnicki was dismayed with the results and declared it not ready for widespread use, as his fellow lawmakers are advocating.

"It just took us forever to get things squared away," he said.

Of his 47 employees whose numbers were checked against the Social Security Administration's database, 17 came back with problems. Eventually, all were cleared to work, he said, after transposed numbers were straightened out or married names were updated.

He said the program has improved now, because his company was making its checks on the phone, as opposed to online.

Still, he believes the system is too slow, and questions linger in his mind about whether he can fire someone whose Social Security number doesn't match the feds' records.

"If I can be candid, the people who are asking for these sanctions to go in have never run a business, never gone through the hiring process," he said.

Quarterly checks

Other employers say they like the idea of checking the validity of Social Security numbers. They do so already, in a de facto manner, when quarterly reports arrive about mismatches with Social Security numbers, American Janitorial Services' Busby said. By then, those employees have left because they know they'll be found out.

Busby said checking Social Security numbers upfront would improve his chances of having a stable workforce.

Leroy Dowdy, chief executive officer of Tin Works in Scottsdale, feels the same way.

But he noted that the federal program doesn't catch identity theft, where a person uses another's name and Social Security number.

That is one of the shortcomings of the 10-year-old Basic Pilot Program, said Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. To do that, the nation would need some sort of biometric identification system, he said.

However, the program can detect fraudulent Social Security numbers in a snap.

"If someone were to go to a street corner and buy a Social Security number or a green card (indicating legal status to work), the system will catch them 100 percent of the time," he said.

Voluntary program

The voluntary program has approximately 5,000 participants nationwide, with about 150 of those in Arizona.

"It allows honest employers to remain honest," Bentley said. "It lets them know that the new hires they're bringing on are legal to work in the United States."

An executive with Bar-S Foods Co. has been in the program since 2000 and says the program works effortlessly, without backups or time delays.

Marty Thompson, the Phoenix-based firm's vice president of human resources, demonstrated the system for lawmakers earlier this month. Senators had few questions about his firm's five-plus years of experience with the program.

Instead, they were more interested in hearing from business representatives why the program is flawed.

"It's not the philosophy of whether we should have this check," said state Sen. Barbara Leff, a Paradise Valley Republican. "It's whether we can make it work."

Thompson's testimony aside, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have required the check of Social Security numbers. Instead, they backed a bill that rounds up a list of various employment violations already on the books and added fines for violating them. That bill is stalled in the Senate and likely will make way for HB2823.

Reach the reporters at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic .com or yvette.armendariz@arizonarepublic.com.

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