Hiring without documentation doesn’t fly like it used to

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Back in college, I had a brilliant, rebellious roommate in the dorms who was a junior transfer from Canada. Exceptionally smart and talented, Mark had come to study at the acclaimed UCLA School of Film. But the thing was, pretty quickly, he decided that he knew way more than the school could teach him.

So he dropped out.

After only one quarter.

And here’s the kicker: Mark not only stayed living in the dorm, he got himself a job in the movie business — without any of the proper paperwork. For starters, somehow back then, the film school did not inform the rest of the campus that Mark had unenrolled. And then, just like his hero, Steven Spielberg, had done several years before, Mark talked his way onto the Universal backlot and got himself a job.

That his visa was for school, and that he didn’t have a work visa, stopped neither him nor his new employer.

Yes indeed, it was a different world back then, that’s for sure. Of course, these days, none of that could have happened.

Today, as you very likely know, employees and employers must legally verify that a new hire is eligible to work in this country, using the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)’s Form I-9, or more properly, the Employment Eligibility Verification Form. In the Form I-9, a prospective employee attests, under penalty of perjury, that he or she is either

  • A citizen of the United States
  • A noncitizen national of the United States
  • A lawful permanent resident, or is
  • An alien authorized to work here

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) requires that employers verify the above. Employees must fill out the Section 1 of the form when hired and the employer must fill out Section 2 within three business days of the employee’s start date. (Note: The form is not needed for volunteers or independent contractors.)

Needless to say, it is no secret that we are living in an era when illegal immigration, especially illegal immigration as it relates to work and jobs, is a hot-button issue. That the IRCA invokes some severe penalties for noncompliance should therefore be no surprise.

According to the USCIS, “Federal law provides for imprisonment and/or fines for false statements or use of false documents in connection with the completion of this form.” In the past few years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted almost 10,000 I-9 audits and imposed almost $100 million in fines.

Specifically, fines for hiring unauthorized workers range from $539 to $21,563 per worker depending on the history of violation. Moreover, an employer in violation can be barred for up to a year from competing for government contracts. Even paperwork violations can result in hefty fines: Each mistake or missing item on an I-9 form can result in a $216 penalty, and up to $2,156 for each form. Thus, for example, an employer that had 50 employees with missing I-9 forms could face a $107,800 fine.

Consider this harrowing example: According to the blog for the Society for Human Resource Management, a company in Richmond, CA, was hit with a whopping fine of $605,250, “the largest amount ever ordered, “ for repeatedly “failing to sign Section 2 of the I-9 form.”

Yes, you read that right. Over a half-million dollars in fines for I-9 paperwork violations.

And if that doesn’t have your head spinning – the USCIS recently revised the Form I-9 and is requiring businesses to use the new form starting September 18, 2017 — a form that already requires more than a dozen pages of instructions.

With all of that in mind, it’s important to take a good look at how you’re onboarding employees. The solution? Make it easy for you and your staff to accurately fill out the I-9 accurately and maintain ongoing compliance with the law.

Do that, and unlike some unlucky swimmers in that first Spielberg blockbuster, you won’t be eaten by a shark.