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Portland Business Journal

Farmers: 'No match' not fair

Law seeks to punish employers who hire illegal immigrants

Portland Business Journal - August 31, 2007
by Robin J. Moody, Business Journal staff writer

A new Homeland Security rule couldn't come at a worse time for Oregon farmers struggling with labor issues.


Jeff Stone

The federal action affects employers that receive so-called no-match letters from the Social Security Administration stating that a worker's name and Social Security number don't match.

The new law takes effect Sept. 14.

If the issue is not resolved through resubmission of worker information, employers are instructed to take "reasonable steps," which may include penalties for employers and firing of the worker.

In Oregon, orchardists growing labor-intensive pear and apple crops are in the thick of hiring for harvests. Many Oregon farmers have struggled to find enough workers during the past two years.

Some are frustrated that Congress has failed to deliver immigration reform.

"We're seeing an increase in sanctions and enforcement but no guest-worker provisions put into place. This may be the death knell for labor-intensive agriculture," said Mike Naumes, owner of Medford-based Naumes Inc., which farms 5,000 acres of pears and other crops, among other business ventures.

Oregon farmers fear they will not be able to operate if an already-shrunken labor pool is further reduced. Agriculture-related activities account for 10 percent of Oregon's gross state product, and total $4 billion in annual production.

"What happens to farms that have to terminate workers because of this? There's not going to be a way to replace those people without making more workers legal," said Barry Bushue, who grows berries, pumpkins and nursery stock on a farm outside Boring.

Bushue is president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of farmers.

Undocumented workers make up 5 percent of the civilian work force nationwide, and Oregon's undocumented immigrant population was between 125,000 and 175,000 in 2005, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated.

The ruling comes on the heels of a year of increased workplace raids and tighter Mexico border security that includes new fencing and stepped-up National Guard and Boarder Patrol troops.

"What the company may not do is simply ignore the problem," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at an August news conference about the ruling, which takes effect in mid-September.

Companies that rely heavily on foreign labor will be most affected, and agriculture will be hit especially hard as an estimated 30 percent of agricultural workers nationwide are illegal.

Hiring illegal workers has been prohibited for 20 years, but the new ruling will hold employers liable for false worker documents.

But employers point out that many no-match letters are sent as a result of name changes and clerical errors.

"This places an unfair burden on the backs of employers, the majority of whom are small businesses," said Jeff Stone, director of government affairs for the Oregon Nursery Association, which represents 1,500 nursery-related business.

The AFL-CIO and American Civil Liberties Union have pledged to sue the federal government over the law.

The issue will also bleed into other labor-intensive service sectors.Nationally, undocumented workers comprise 25 percent of construction laborers, 25 percent of grounds and maintenance workers, and 20 percent of cooks.

In Oregon, nearly 20 percent of service jobs are filled by Latinos. They are starting to show up in greater numbers in other industries, too.

No match, no work

New Homeland Security rules governing Social Security numbers take effect in September.

Under a new Homeland Security rule, employers must take the following steps to protect themselves from legal action if they're informed a worker's Social Security number and name don't match federal records.

  1. Check whether the mismatch was due to a record-keeping error. If so, employers must correct the problem, inform the Social Security Administration, and verify that the revised information matches federal records within 30 days.
  2. If the mismatch was not due to a record-keeping mistake, the employer must immediately ask the worker to confirm that the name and number submitted to the employer are correct. If the worker says they're correct, the employer must ask the worker to resolve the issue with Social Security Administration within 90 days from when the mismatch letter was received.
  3. If the employer cannot verify that the situation was resolved in 90 days, the employer and worker must complete a new worker Form I-9 without using the suspect number and instead using a document presented by the employee that contains a photograph to establish identity and/or employment authorization.

rmoody@bizjournals.com | 503-219-3438   Original story

Copyright © 2007 Portland Business Journal

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