As all employers know, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 requires employers to verify an employee’s work authorization status through the use of an “I-9” form. Generally, the biggest pitfall employers faced with the I-9 process was ensuring the paperwork was completed correctly, in a timely fashion, and maintained properly in case of an audit. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice is now focusing on the I-9 process for a completely different reason: National Origin Discrimination.
Along with race, gender, disability, age, and other “protected classes,” employers cannot discriminate on the basis of an employee’s national origin. Although this prohibition may evoke images of signs from a bygone era that stated: “No Irish Need Apply,” it is now becoming an issue for employers that take seriously immigration laws. On the one hand, an employer may be liable for hiring undocumented workers – who are, by definition, not United States citizens. On the other hand, an employer cannot treat a non-U.S. citizen applicant or new hire differently than a United States citizen.
Recently, the Department of Justice brought suit against a major producer and processor of eggs and egg-related products, with forty locations in six states, and approximately 1,850 workers. The employer was enrolled in the Government’s “E-Verify” program. According to the Complaint, the employer also utilized commercially-available third-party software “that integrated both the process of generating an electronic Form I-9 and access to the E-Verify program.” This program, according to the Department of Justice, “guided authorized users through the electronic Form I-9 process and the E-Verify program by soliciting information about a new hire and, based on the information provided, presented a series of additional informational screens.”
The software, the Government alleges, then sent the user on one of two paths, depending on whether the new hire was a U.S. citizen or a non-U.S. citizen. If the new hire was a U.S. citizen, the software instructed the user to accept verifying documents listed in Columns A, B, or C on the I-9 form. In contrast, if the new hire was not a U.S. citizen, the software instructed the user to only accept Column A documents. Based upon those allegations, the Department of Justice claims that the employer, “knowingly treated individuals differently in the employment eligibility verification process on account of their citizenship status.”
As relief, the Department requested, among other items:
- That the affected individuals receive “full remedial relief” ”including back pay, front pay and/or reinstatement;”
- An order for “injunctive measures to overcome the effects and prevent the recurrence of the discriminatory practices”; and
- Finally, that the employer “pay an appropriate civil penalty as determined by the Administrative Law Judge for each work-authorized non-U.S. citizen who is found to have been subjected to the pattern or practice of discriminatory employment eligibility verification practices alleged in this Complaint.”
If the Department of Justice is successful, the price paid by the employer for utilizing a new piece of software will be steep. The employer is potentially liable for front pay, reinstatement, and a per-person civil penalty, for possibly hundreds of individuals.
Takeaways: The intersection of employment laws and immigration laws can be complicated and mistakes can be costly. Even when an employer takes action, in good faith, to comply with one set of rules and regulations, the employer can, in the process, become liable for violations of other rules and regulations. Most importantly, it is worth remembering that software developers that create useful, time-saving tools may not always consider the legal implications of the applications created. When implementing new software, or enrolling in new online tools, having counsel review the system upfront may save significant expenses later if the software creates more problems than solutions.