Georgia Politics 4:43 a.m. Tuesday, November 8, 2011
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A key part of the Georgia law that cracks down on illegal immigration is fraught with gaps and confusing to businesses expected to comply with it, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
At issue is a 2007 state law that requires certain government contractors and subcontractors to use a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. The free online program helps businesses confirm whether their newly hired employees are eligible to work in the U.S.
Supporters say the program will help block illegal immigrants from taking jobs from U.S. citizens; critics say that while the program is free, it costs them time and money to utilize. Unknown is how many public contractors required to use E-Verify are doing so. The reason: Some government agencies aren’t checking.
The Legislature revised Georgia’s law last year, hoping to ensure compliance. The law said the state Labor Department would conduct at least 100 random audits of local governments and their contractors, but only if labor officials had the money.
Labor Department spokesman Sam Hall confirmed his agency hasn’t done any such audits because it hasn’t received any state or federal funding. The agency sent the U.S. Labor Department a funding request in January, but still has not received a response, Hall said.
“If we don’t [get a response] by the end of the year, we will resend it again, and we will continue to resend it until we get some response,” Hall said.
This year, Georgia legislators revised the law once more, seeking to toughen it. It now calls for the Audits and Accounts Department to conduct annual audits beginning next year — as long as it has the funding.
The state Legislature has not set aside any money for these audits or asked the department “to provide any budget projections relative to that activity,” State Auditor Russell Hinton said.
At the same time, Georgia is preparing to greatly expand the number of businesses that must use E-Verify. Under a new measure Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law in May, businesses with 11 or more employees must use the federal program, regardless of whether they have government contracts. The requirement will be phased in beginning Jan. 1, based on each company’s number of employees.
Steve Ramey of the Founding Fathers Tea Party Patriots said government officials should do even more to ensure compliance with the law and to make sure taxpayers aren’t on the hook for costs associated with illegal immigrants.
“I would certainly like to see a more effective way of monitoring and intensified checks,” Ramey said. “The answer is to vote out the incumbents and find responsible replacements that care what happens to the Georgia citizen worker.”
State Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, one of the E-Verify law’s chief supporters, said lawmakers will seek funding for the audits. But he indicated that will be a difficult task given the tough economy and the state’s lean finances.
“We are going to make every effort we can to secure funding,” he said.
State law does not require cities and counties to audit their contractors. Officials from Cobb and DeKalb counties and Atlanta don’t do these checks; they rely on employers’ signed affidavits that say the employers are registered to use E-Verify, and promise to use it throughout their government contracts.
Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said county officials have talked about doing audits but “[We] simply don’t have the resources to move forward on that right now.”
Fulton and Gwinnett counties audit their contractors. Six of 12 companies randomly audited by Gwinnett over the past two years failed to verify the legal status of their workers according to federal guidelines.
Among them was Norcross-based Tristar of America, a contractor that used five illegal workers to demolish the famed “Gwinnett is Great” and “Success Lives Here” water towers along I-85. The company had won the $149,000 contract to demolish the towers and other county water facilities. Although the contract began on March 31 last year, the audit found Tristar did not verify the eligibility of 18 new hires until Aug. 31 last year — after it received notice of the audit.
Of the 18 Tristar employees checked, five were not authorized to work in the U.S., according to the audit. Two already had been terminated, while three others lost their jobs on Aug. 31 last year. The county terminated the contract.
The audit report found Tristar didn’t participate in the E-Verify program as required by state law. After Gwinnett ended the contract, which was nearly complete, it found another firm to finish the work. Under Gwinnett’s purchasing ordinance, Tristar lost its eligibility to bid on another county contract for one year.
A Tristar official said the company was not aware it was required to use E-Verify and suggested state and local government agencies should do more to educate businesses about the requirement. Tristar said the unauthorized workers provided phony documents and were fired as soon as the company learned of the audit.
“Tristar never intended to evade the law,” Allison Hughes, Tristar’s operations/office manager, said in an email. “Once Tristar learned of the requirement it immediately came into compliance and it now uses E-Verify as required by the statute. Had the state and local governments performed even basic awareness or training about the program then the issue with unauthorized workers would never have arisen.”
Gwinnett’s audits found five other contractors did not verify the eligibility of their workers within three days, per federal guidelines. None of the firms employed unauthorized workers. The companies were allowed to keep their contracts because they didn’t violate any law.
Gwinnett Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said the audits are a valuable deterrent, but Gwinnett has limited resources for them, and the E-Verify audits are a small part of the staff’s workload. Gwinnett’s four-person performance analysis staff randomly chooses about half-dozen contracts each year to review.
“We believe we’re doing what we need to do to be in compliance with the law,” Nash said. “Not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.”
Tristar officials are not alone in experiencing difficulties with the law.
Of 95 proposals businesses submitted for new concessions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport this year, 34 ran into trouble with the law. Some businessmen failed to include key information on the sworn affidavits that confirm they are authorized to use E-Verify, public records show. Others didn’t submit the affidavits as required. The city started the process over again, partly because of these errors.
“I just don’t think the vendor community realized how serious this form is,” said Adam Smith, the city’s chief procurement officer. “And that it is a state-mandated form.”
How we got the story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed state and local government officials, and reviewed state laws, Gwinnett County audits and documents concerning Atlanta’s requests for proposals for airport concessions.
How it works
State law requires companies that do business with public agencies to use E-Verify to ensure newly hired employees are eligible to work in the U.S. Operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration, the online system uses employee names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and other information to confirm employees can legally work here.