Your Employees Papers Please

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

Source Your Employees Papers Please 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


Crackdown could trigger gap in labor, workers say

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

Employers are not the only ones concerned about the effects of any crackdown on undocumented workers. Some employees also worry that lower-paid jobs will go unfilled, at least temporarily.

In Arizona, construction, restaurant, agriculture and hotel industries rely on immigrant labor, including undocumented workers.

One study by Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management estimated 12 percent of Arizona's workforce in 2000 consisted of undocumented Mexicans. Indications are that the numbers could be higher today as groups such as the Pew Hispanic Center point out at least 500,000 undocumented people are living in Arizona.

In the meantime, many of those industries that depend on immigrant workers are facing worker shortages.

Arizona businesses are projected to create about 195,000 jobs in the two years ending in 2006. That's a 7.7 percent jump from the estimated job base in 2004. The biggest jump is in construction jobs, up an estimated 12.3 percent. Jobs in food preparation are expected to show higher-than-average growth, too.

A crackdown could mean a worker shortage. While that may provide support for an expanded guest-worker program, some employees take a more basic view.

"We'd be screwed," said Bryan Helm, who works for Whitfill Nursery.

Although Helm, a Phoenix native, said he has no idea how many, if any, of his colleagues are in the country undocumented, he suspects a crackdown severely would limit the overall landscape workforce.

Most likely hurt by employer sanctions include jobs in restaurants, construction, grounds maintenance and other labor-intensive, lower-paid positions. Usual pay is $7 to $11 an hour, and employers have difficulty finding enough documented workers.

Some say that any crackdown could mean that Hispanic workers, particularly those with dark skin and heavy accents, would be harassed about their right to work.

"It's just going to create more problems," said Roberto Aragon, 38, a naturalized citizen who works for an auto-service company. "People without food will do anything to survive."

Landscaper Sergio Torres, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, suspects a crackdown initially may scare away some construction and landscape workers where the number of jobs often exceeds the number of willing workers.

Many are harassed about the ability to work because of skin color, Torres said. Another law could intimidate immigrants from seeking jobs where they are noticed, such as construction.

"I'd guess some 50 percent of the Latin people (in construction) don't have papers to work," Torres said.

One stucco mason, who asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted, suspects a quarter of the staff is undocumented. Still, those workers are much needed just to keep up with the demand.

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates immigrant labor had increased by 914,000, to 10.1 million workers, in 2004. The largest segments are going after jobs in construction, food and lodging, and business services. U.S. born Hispanics, meanwhile, increasingly are going after jobs in hospitals and wholesale/retail.

According to a recent public-opinion poll, most Arizonans agree employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers should face penalties.

A few people expect little to change, though.

"I have neighbors that don't have papers. They are working," said Sebastian Mata Villanueva, a retired landscaper from Gilbert, speaking in his preferred Spanish. Villanueva became a citizen in 1987, he said.

"They have families to care for," which leads immigrants to take a risk finding a job, he said. He added that employers need them, especially in labor-intensive, lower-paying jobs not sought out by Americans.

Aragon said he believes the effort to pass state laws keeping immigrants from working won't fix the immigration issue. Instead, it will just punish hard workers.

"Latin people are going to feel betrayed," he said, "and it's going to affect a lot of people who rely on cheap labor."

What's needed is a guest-worker program, so that people from Mexico can come to work the jobs Americans don't want, Aragon said.

Requirements 'for everybody'

The prospect of getting hit with fines for hiring undocumented workers doesn't faze Marty Thompson.

The vice president of human resources for Bar-S Foods Co., Thompson is confident his 1,700-strong workforce is legal. He has the paperwork to prove it, too.

Since 2000, the Phoenix-based company has been using the Basic Pilot Program, run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to check the employment eligibility of its new hires.

Today, the program finds problems with about 10 percent of the Bar-S hires, who then have to have their documents checked.

Most of those problems are because of name changes that individuals failed to report to the Social Security Administration, or problems with compound last names, Thompson said. Problems that can be remedied easily.

It wasn't always so. In the early going, Bar-S would raise questions about an employee's documents, and, nine times out of 10, the individual wouldn't return to iron out the matter.

"I have a good idea why," Thompson said, since he suspects they were undocumented and realized they could get a job effortlessly at another packing house in Oklahoma, where Bar-S has the bulk of its workforce.

It's getting tougher to find documented workers since the word is out that Bar-S verifies employment status. This narrows the company's employment pool, and many of those qualified to work don't want to, he said.

"The Number 1 reason we can't get people, the Number 1 reason we're going offshore is people don't show up every day, on time," Thompson said. "You tell me what that's all about."

Thompson is no fan of mandating new rules on employers.

But the Basic Pilot Program is a quick, easy way to ensure a documented workforce.

Thompson said he thinks that if policymakers are of a mind to require the program, they shouldn't stop at employers.

Mortgage brokers, bankers, automobile-finance shops and anyone else who deals with activities that move the economy should be required to run the simple check.

"The only way to do this is to have everybody play," he said.

Loopholes disturb cattleman

Norm Hinz spends his time riding herd on the 164,000 head of cattle in his feedlots.

He doesn't have time to ride herd on the legality of his employees' Social Security numbers.

Nor should he, said Hinz, general manager of Pinal Feeding Co.

"Sometimes, I think we're trying to cure the symptoms and not the disease," Hinz said.

Better to button down the border and work with employers on plugging the loopholes that everyone knows are exploited to get workers, he said.

With years of experience in the agricultural sector, Hinz sees the need for a guest-worker program.

"Maybe we could form some sort of union with Mexico to work together a little more closely," he said.

Hinz, who is president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders Association, said that attempts by Arizona lawmakers to make employers accountable for their hires' documented status are shortsighted and ignore the national scope of the issue of undocumented immigration.

Besides, it makes little sense to try to rid Arizona's employment rolls of every worker who may be in this country without papers, he said. Taking away jobs may lead to unintended problems.

"I don't think it means they'd go home," Hinz said. "I don't think they'd stop working. It'll just go underground."

Hinz said he's confident his staff of 150 is legally authorized to work.

He helped some of his workers get citizenship when amnesty was last offered in 1987-88. Those people still are working for him, he said.

"We've installed quite a few incentives for them," he said of his long-tenured staff.

Bonus pay, profit sharing and employer-paid health care have helped keep his staff on board for years.

Browniemaker follows rules

Kimberly Silva recently posted an entry-level baker's job for $10 an hour. The pay is better than the $8 to $8.50 most entry-level bakers are getting these days in the Valley, she said, but she's still having trouble filling the job.

"We can't get people down to apply," said Silva, operations team leader for Chandler-based Fairytale Brownies.

Just one application has come in two weeks, she said.

The company, however, doesn't budge from its policy of checking numbers on Social Security cards, as well as verifying birth dates and names.

"It's above and beyond the I-9 document check," Silva said. "And we still run into problems. . . . It never prevents someone with a stolen identity from getting through."

She reports terminating the jobs of a few good team members after the company learned they weren't who they said they were.

Sometimes, a year or more can pass before someone complains that his or her identity is being used by an immigrant unable to work legally. That's because the owner of the identity doesn't know it is being used by another person until he or she sees a Social Security earnings report and it doesn't match information on a paycheck.

And sometimes job offers, made on a contingent basis, have to be withdrawn because identification needed to work legally cannot be validated.

"We are very strict on what we check, and we've lost people," she said.

The company that bakes brownies, known by the purple packaging, gets a lot of seasonal workers close to the holidays when orders go up. Employment fluctuates. Currently, the company has 33 employees, but that figure will rise as high as 90 during the peak of holiday business.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to get the staff we need," Silva said, "and to keep good staff."

Silva is hopeful a guest-worker program can be implemented. For now, she has to price jobs higher than other kitchen positions in hopes of attracting legal workers.

Fines for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants exist on the federal level. So she's not sure whether state sanctions will make a difference in how Valley employers hire.

"It's not going to eliminate the problem. It's too widespread," Silva said.

"I don't know if some of these companies will pay the fines. They need the workers. For us, we couldn't afford to pay fine after fine after fine, and we don't want to break the law."

Employees screened carefully

Ron Busby deals with heavy turnover and constant churn in his workforce, so he welcomes the idea of a requirement to check the employment eligibility of his hires.

Such an upfront screening may create more stability in his 90-member staff, said Busby, president of American Janitorial Services.

He has one caveat: Make the state run the employment checks, not the employer.

As operator of a business that hires low-wage workers, Busby is familiar with the winks and nods employers use to skirt employment law.

"We're not kidding ourselves," he said of the federal requirements his firm follows when hiring new workers.

"We don't know if the Social Security number and the picture ID they give us is real, but that's all we can do."

Actually, American Janitorial runs background checks on potential hires, and that company verifies Social Security numbers through a telephone check, said Howard Hunter, president of Select Information Services, a Glendale business. If a hire's name and Social Security number don't match, the firm gives that information to the employer.

Busby said a state-run eligibility screening would be a boon.

"If the state took that over, at least it would level the playing field and lower my costs," Busby said.

Although his staffing remains level at 90 people, Busby said his firm processes many times more than that. Last year, he hired 700 people, many of whom either didn't pass a background check or who left after just a few days' employment.

If state officials get zealous about weeding out undocumented workers, Busby warned, they need to face the reality of where America gets its low-wage workforce.

"I don't have people walking in my door saying, 'I want a job,' " Busby said.

He pays $6.75 to $7 an hour for janitorial jobs.

Without willing low-wage workers in his industry, Busby said, he and his competitors would be forced to raise rates. And, he said, he doesn't know if they could attract customers at higher rates. For reasons such as this, Busby said, he favors a guest-worker program.