Beaufort News

Inspection of small businesses expected to yield more illegal worker violations

COLUMBIA -- State officials expect the number of companies cited for violating the state's immigration laws to rise when audits of small businesses begin in July.

Those audits will focus on businesses that traditionally hire foreign workers, meaning landscapers, hotels, restaurants, golf courses and construction companies will be first to be checked.

The state has been auditing larger employers since last summer, and so far the compliance rate has been high, said Jim Knight, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, the agency conducting the audits.

"On July 1, 2010, ask me if my compliance rate is going to be as high as 94 percent," Knight said. "No, it's not."

The audits are the key piece of the S.C. Immigration Reform Act, which was passed by the legislature in 2008. The goal was to drive illegal immigrants out of South Carolina by enforcing hiring standards on businesses.

While state regulators will focus on industries that are known for hiring foreign workers, it will conduct sample audits of other businesses to make sure everyone complies, Knight said.

When the state began auditing companies with more than 100 employees last July, there were 2,100 businesses in that size range, Knight said.

The agency estimates there are 110,000 companies with fewer than 100 employees, Knight said. There are 10 auditors.

Knight and immigration attorneys predict the number of citations will rise once smaller companies are audited.

"Large employers are more sophisticated. They have human resource people on staff. They have lawyers on staff," Knight said.

Companies that break the law can be fined $100 to $1,000 per worker and lose the right to do business in South Carolina.

So far, only one company has risked losing its business license and paid a large fine, Knight said. The Charleston landscaper paid $11,500 for repeatedly breaking the law.

Most violations have involved minor infractions such as missing the five-day window to verify new workers, or accepting an unapproved form of ID, he said.

In every citation, a company is given a chance to correct its mistakes before penalties are assessed.

When state regulators prepare to audit a business, they mail a letter in advance, Knight said. If a company needs more time to prepare, its representatives can call the investigator to talk about it, he said. Often, a company doing business in South Carolina has corporate headquarters in another state and needs extra time to get the correct files delivered, he said.

"We do not have arrest powers," Knight said. "We do not carry guns. We are there to look at documents."

To comply with the law, companies must verify new workers' legal status through two means:

Companies have to use one of the two methods but not both, said Lee Depret-Bixio, an immigration attorney at Ogletree Deakins.

Depret-Bixio advised employers to keep their verification documents separate from federal I-9 forms, which they already are required to fill out when hiring new workers.

Those documents must be on file for every worker hired on July 1 or later, she said.

As for employees on the payroll before July 1, company officials will be required to sign a statement saying they do not willingly or knowingly employ illegal immigrants, Knight said.

If a business owner will not sign the statement, then auditors will conduct a random investigation of the legal status of all employees, no matter their ethnicity or length of employment.