The rules of the hiring game have changed for South Carolina business operators, and they would do well to make sure they understand them.
That's especially true for small businesses with no human resources specialists on staff. As of Sunday, any business that hires one or more people must check the employment status of all new hires though the federal E-Verify system or face penalties. The option to use a South Carolina driver's license or a license from a list of approved states to verify legal status is gone.
E-Verify is intended to supplement the federal I-9 employment eligibility verification. It compares information from an individual's I-9 form to records kept by the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Using a program set up as voluntary to fulfill a legal obligation means that state and federal officials must do their best to make sure E-Verify is accurate. Reading how the program works (including such phrases as "tentative nonconfirm") and the rules employers must follow to use the system, one can see where the process could go awry.
An employee might be flagged simply because the name on employment documents is different from the name on a Social Security Administration record (Tim versus Timothy, for example).
If a tentative nonconfirm comes up, the employer has specific requirements about how and when to notify the employee. Employees have eight federal work days to notify the appropriate agency that they disagree with the finding. If the employee challenges the E-Verify results, the employer can't take any action against the employee until it's sorted out.
One requirement to note is that employers can't use E-Verify to screen potential employees. They may only use it after they have offered employment and the person has accepted the job offer.
As of April 30, the state's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation reported, 92 percent of those randomly audited were following the state law. Of the 130 employers found not using E-Verify, all were small businesses with a dozen or fewer workers. The people in charge didn't know about the new requirement, which went into effect without penalty Jan. 1. No illegal immigrant workers were found.
Business owners who are found to have knowingly hired unauthorized workers can find their business licenses suspended and their businesses shut down for 10 to 30 days on the first offense and 30 to 60 days for a second offense. A third offense results in a business license being revoked and the operation shut down. After 90 days, the employer can petition for a provisional license that comes with three years of probation and a reinstatement fee of up to $1,000.
More occurrences can result in a license being revoked for five years.
As a voluntary program, E-Verify's record for accurately verifying employment status is very good and improving. In a report released in January 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that in fiscal year 2009, the system confirmed the work eligibility of 97.4 percent of employees checked through E-Verify and the number of false negatives had been reduced. The accuracy rate in 2006 was 92 percent
But the GAO found the system remains vulnerable to identity theft and employer fraud.
Last year, the Department of Homeland Security set up a pilot program in a few states and the District of Columbia that allows people to go online to "self-check" their information. The program's goal is to provide a way for workers to correct any database errors before they apply for their next job.
That's good, but there should be safeguards for people who don't check their information beforehand but are wrongly fired.
As more states join South Carolina in requiring employers to use E-Verify or if the federal government requires its use, accuracy will become even more important, as will setting up a system that allows people who are about to look for a new job to make sure their information is correct before they start.
No one wants the hassles of straightening out a records error, and few of us can afford a delay in getting a paycheck.
And whether it makes a difference in hiring practices will hinge on enforcement.