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A Better Partnership


Aug 2012
August 13, 2012

Hiring: Sloppy paperwork can lead to fines

In the past four years, I-9 audits have increased five-fold, and it's likely that every large (and many smaller) companies may face such an audit in the next three years.  As a reminder, the I-9 form documents each new employee you hire and ascertains that they are, indeed, authorized to work in the United States.  It's a one-page form that is supposed to be completed by the employee no later than the day the employee is hired.  Sounds simple, right?  Not at all, according to Kathy Hanenburg, an immigration attorney at Warner Norcross: the handbook for I-9 compliance is a whopping 1,000 pages.  In the past four years, the U.S. Immigration and Customer Enforcement, or ICE, has levied more than $10 million in fines and criminally charged 221 employers for their hiring practices.

Kathy works closely with Sarah Howard Riley and Brian Lennon in the firm's White Collar Crime division.  They have identified three areas of risk for employers when it comes to the I-9:
  • Messy paperwork:  Last year, a business was fined nearly $175,000 for having messy paperwork -- and that fine was decreased from the original $275,000.  ICE found errors in the paperwork, which could be as small as failing to check a single box or having the HR person highlight (but not initial) where the employee needs to sign.  ICE also found that the employer had made no good-faith effort to correct the situation, hence the fine.
  • Hiring illegal immigrants:  So much of our region's agricultural work depends on migrant labor, but Warner attorneys warn that businesses cannot hire unauthorized workers -- period.  Not only do such agricultural  operations face stiff fines, their owners can go to jail if ICE finds that they repeatedly hired unauthorized workers.  An additional activity that raises the hackles of ICE:  if the business is involved in the pipeline of bringing illegal immigrants to this country to work.
  • Fake documents:  Warner attorneys say that businesses may have beautiful records -- but could still face penalties if their employees are using stolen identities.  Employers need to know what kinds of fakes to look for lest they be fined or face serious interruption for not doing what the I-9 law requires.

"Companies commonly make multiple errors when completing the I-9, even though it is only one page long," Riley explained. "Almost every form has at least one error -- and each error may be assessed a separate fine, so a single I-9 form can be the basis of thousands of dollars in fines. Here's where you need an experienced team of attorneys to guide you through an audit to ensure your business is in compliance."

Riley noted that ICE is looking at companies with as few as 400 employees. Specific targets include manufacturers, particularly those that have grown through acquisitions, agricultural and meat packing plants, distribution and warehousing and industrial cleaning. Additionally, companies that have unpleasant work conditions and a workforce afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs are also likely to be targeted. Finally, disgruntled or fired employees may tip off ICE on the use of undocumented workers at a business.

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