Starting Monday, thousands of small businesses in North Carolina will be required to use an Internet-based system to verify that new hires are eligible to work in the U.S.
Under the state law, every business with more than 25 full-time employees will have to run new employees' information through a federal system known as E-Verify.
An employer enters an employee's name, Social Security number, address and date of birth into a system that matches it with other federal data.
"I thought if E-Verify were in place and employers were required to use E-Verify in their hiring practice, it would stymie some of the ease with which illegally present people could be hired," said N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, a Salisbury Republican who helped spearhead the legislation.
Employees whose information runs through without a discrepancy are cleared to work. Employees whose names are flagged have eight days to start an appeal.
After that, any business that continues to employ someone deemed ineligible will be warned, then fined by the N.C. Department of Labor.
The law comes at a time when the state's unemployment rate -- 8.8 percent in May -- is among the nation's highest and immigration overhaul measures are being considered by Congress.
The last phase also goes into effect on the same day that federal extended unemployment benefits end for more than 70,000 jobless North Carolinians.
Warren argues that the E-Verify legislation could help reduce the state's high unemployment by making it harder for undocumented workers to take jobs that North Carolinians could fill.
Some critics argue it's just more paperwork. Others fear it will dry up jobs in sectors, such as construction, that are critical to the economic recovery.
Others, such as John Goodman, director of governmental affairs at the N.C. Chamber of Commerce, said North Carolina's law is just anticipating legislation that's likely to come from the federal government anyway.
"We're trying to get ahead of that," Goodman said.
Two phases already underway
The state law, which has rolled out in three stages, was passed in June 2011 after three years of debate and modifications. Starting in October 2012, businesses in North Carolina with 500 or more employees had to use E-Verify for all new hires. In January, it was extended to businesses with 100 or more employees.
And starting Monday, the third and final phase also applies to the more than 20,000 small businesses with 25 to 99 employees.
"This is the big grab here," Warren said. "This will kick a lot more people into the system and this should help boost the effectiveness of it."
It's also boosting confusion, as this third and final group is the biggest yet -- and perhaps the least prepared, because many larger companies had already been using E-Verify when the North Carolina law took effect.
Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers Association human resources consulting firm in Charlotte, said he's been getting a stream of calls from small-business owners across all sectors.
"Most of our calls have been about, 'I have read (and) heard that I have to start doing it, but how does the process really work?' 'How do I sign up?' " Colbert said.
The process itself is quick and easy, said Roy Brown, chief financial officer of The Employers Association, which has 27 employees. Brown had the company start using E-Verify a few months ago. He used it with the past two employees he hired.
He said he took an online course followed by a test on the E-Verify website through the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. The whole process took about 45 minutes, he said.
The "really simple, really fast" process for verifying a new hire took only five minutes, Brown said.
According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, nearly 99 percent of all E-Verify searches have resulted in an employee being automatically authorized to work, either instantly or within 24 hours.
About 1 percent were correctly deemed ineligible and a fraction of 1 percent were mistakenly identified that way.
Some sectors skirt rules
Though every company with 25 or more employees has to comply, sectors, such as construction, landscaping and agriculture, that rely heavily on immigrant labor stand to lose the most.
"Those particular sectors may have a higher percentage of employees who turn up to be unauthorized to work after the E-Verify is performed," Colbert said.
Many of them have been skirting the rules before now, Colbert said.
The federal government requires that employers complete an I-9 form for every new hire. The form, which has blanks for the employee's name, address, date of birth and Social Security number, was designed to distinguish between legal citizens and undocumented workers.
Some employers will look at the documents the new hire provides and accept them so long as they "appear to be genuine," Colbert said.
"There are employers out there who have a gut feeling that some of the documents may be professional fakes," he said. "But they're doing exactly what the law requires -- they are simply examining the documents to see if they appear to be original documents."
Under the E-Verify law, those employers can no longer simply rely on their assumptions, Colbert said.
Julian Arcila, executive director of the Hispanic Construction Association, is among the law's critics.
The organization, which represents 254 Hispanic-owned construction businesses in North Carolina, has been holding seminars to explain the new law to its members. "We always encourage our members in the construction industry to follow the rules," Arcila said.
But these rules are frustrating, he said. Even with high unemployment, North Carolina faces a shortage of workers qualified to work in the construction industry, he said. "We're very concerned that once this rule comes into effect, we will see even (fewer) workers able to work," he said.
The law does make an exception for "seasonal employees" -- a response to lobbying from the state's agriculture industry, said Goodman of the N.C. Chamber. Under the law, if employees work 90 or fewer days in one calendar year, the employer doesn't have to run E-Verify background checks on them.
Seasonal status might help some construction workers, Arcila said, if they're working on a short, residential project. But it will disqualify them from longer, commercial projects.
Just a precursor?
Enforcement of the law can bring its own challenges. The N.C. Department of Labor isn't authorized to perform random audits. Only if someone submits a complaint against a business, accusing it of not following E-Verify protocol, can the department step in and investigate, said Delores Quesenberry, a spokeswoman for the department.
Since the first phase of the law rolled out, the department has gotten just 16 complaints.
"Three of those have turned into legitimate ... open cases we're looking into," said Quesenberry, who wouldn't name the businesses under investigation.
Warren, now in his second term in the N.C. House, said there will always be businesses trying to find a loophole.
"With any bill, it always comes down to the fine details and ... an individual's integrity," Warren said.
Goodman said that, popular or not, this law is likely just a precursor to future immigration reform legislation from the federal government, which could potentially require E-Verify checks of all employers, no matter the size. Just last week, he said, a representative from the Department of Homeland Security called "to ask about our E-Verify program, what we're doing here, how we got it right, (how) we're working with the Department of Labor."
And if that federal legislation does come?
"We're ready," Goodman said.
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