'E-Verify' Screening Rules Kick In For Contractors

Beginning Tuesday, all federal contractors will be required to use E-Verify, an online security system set up by the Department of Homeland Security to make sure employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

The rule finally goes into effect after four delays — and an unsuccessful legal appeal by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

With E-Verify, when the company hires someone, the new employee fills out an I-9 form and shows two forms of ID — the same procedure as before. But instead of calling the Social Security Administration to check the documents, the company logs on to the government's E-Verify Web site to determine whether the person is authorized to work in the U.S.

New Procedures

Valenzuela Drywall, a Tucson, Ariz., construction company, began using E-Verify more than a year ago. This was even before Arizona required employers to use it to try to cut down on the number of illegal workers in the state.

Payroll manager Anna Romero says she likes that she can print out the authorization for her records, which she couldn't do before.

"You just enter, you know, last name, first name, Social Security number, date of birth, the day they started — and it comes right out whether they're authorized to work," Romero says. "It's simple, straightforward. It gives you step-by-step instructions. It's not difficult at all."

The company is one of some 145,000 employers nationwide using E-Verify. Thirteen states already make its use mandatory.

'A Great Expense'

Now, any company nationwide doing work for the federal government will have to use the program. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some other business associations tried to stop the rule from being implemented.

Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, which represents large companies, takes issue with the new requirement. Her problem is that federal contractors are now required to use E-Verify to check not only new hires but also all other employees.

"If you have 6,000 or 100,000 employees there's a great expense involved in the time and the effort it takes to re-verify everyone," Shotwell says. "And that's really our biggest concern."

Years Of Refining The Program

The rule does give companies 30 days after a contract is awarded to enroll employees.

Spokesman Bill Wright of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers E-Verify, says the Web site is quicker and more precise than older methods.

Earlier versions were not so accurate: At one point 20 percent of all workers were flagged as illegal. But after years of refining the program, Wright says, the rate is down to 3 percent. And less than one-tenth of those are mistakes, such as wrong numbers or wrong names, rather than illegal workers.

"That basically means 2.8 percent — just under the 3 — were found to be not authorized to work in the United States," Wright says. "Translation: E-Verify system works. That's exactly what it's supposed to do."

Systematic Scrutinizing

If an employee is flagged, he has eight working days to resolve the issue. During that time, he can't be fired. E-Verify will flag someone who uses a phony name or Social Security number. But its weakness is that it doesn't verify identities of workers who may illegally be using other people's legitimate names or numbers.

Shotwell says this flaw could potentially allow workers with stolen or false identification to slip through the cracks.

"They could show up as legally authorized to work, when in fact they're not," she says.

Wright admits E-Verify isn't perfect, but he says it's better than previous systems.

"We are working to help make the system at least combat a little of the identify theft and identity fraud," he says. "But you're right; it does not eliminate it."

At Valenzuela Drywall, Romero says they haven't had many suspicious checks using E-Verify. Some were flagged because there was a wrong digit in a Social Security number. Others were unauthorized workers. But the reason they've had so few probably has little to do with E-Verify — and more to do with the economy: They're just not hiring much these days.

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