States consider shift to online employment verification

By Rita Zeidner

States are showing interest in laws that would require employers to participate in a controversial federal government system designed to verify the work eligibility of employees.

Legislators in Colorado and Georgia have passed laws requiring government contractors to participate, or attempt to participate, in the federal government's online employment verification system. The program, known as the Basic Pilot, is voluntary in most jurisdictions. It checks information in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases in an effort to ensure that new hires are eligible to work in the United States.

Legislative proposals that would have required all employers nationwide to do the computerized match never made it to a final vote in Congress during 2006, noted speakers giving an update on the status of immigration policy during a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast. Presenters included Michael Aitken, SHRM's director of governmental affairs; Gerry Ratliff, chief of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Verification Division in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Cynthia Lange, an attorney with the law firm of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy; and Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel.

The Colorado law requires companies that sign a new contract or renew an existing contract on or after Aug. 9, 2006, to certify that neither they nor their subcontractors knowingly employ illegal aliens. A separate Colorado law requires employers to retain file copies of the documents used to verify legal status for all new hires in Colorado beginning on Jan. 1, 2007.

In Georgia, public employers and their contractors must register and participate in the Basic Pilot. The law has three effective dates: July 1, 2007, for employers with 500 or more employees; July 1, 2008, for those with 100 or more employees; and July 1, 2009, for those with 99 or fewer employees.

Other states cracking down on illegal workers:

Louisiana. Effective June 23, 2006, SB 753 prohibits awarding state contracts to employers who operate a Louisiana business of more than 10 employees if they knowingly employ an undocumented foreign national worker.

Pennsylvania. Effective Aug. 11, 2006, HR 2319 prohibits state contractors from knowingly employing or knowingly permitting their subcontractors to employ undocumented workers.

Tennessee. Effective Jan. 1, 2007, HB 111 prohibits companies from contracting with the state without first attesting in writing that it will not knowingly use the services of illegal immigrants or of any subcontractor who will use illegal immigrants.

Bills are pending in Alabama, Arizona, California, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin, speakers said. In addition, many local jurisdictions are cracking down on illegal hiring, the speakers said.

Speakers said they are confident that when Congress convenes in January, lawmakers again will consider proposals making the Basic Pilot a mandatory national program. Any legislative proposal would likely include provisions spelling out how national verification would be phased in and whether the program will be expanded to include current employees as well as new hires.

According to Ratliff of DHS, the agency is considering adding an individual's photograph to work authorization documents to help employers identify would-be employees who are using fake identities. During raids at several meat processing facilities in December 2006, many workers were arrested for allegedly using fake identities. They likely would have passed muster under the checks performed under the Basic Pilot. But having a photo at the ready would help an employer recognize if an employee is using a stolen identity, said webcast participants.

Rita Zeidner edits the Society for Human Resources (SHRM) Online Technology Focus Area.

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