Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Mississippi Democrat in line to become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has warned the nation’s largest uniform supplier it faces criminal charges if it follows a White House proposal to recheck workers with mismatched Social Security numbers and fire those who cannot resolve the discrepancy in 60 days.

Rep. Bennie Thompson said in a letter to Cintas Corp. it could be charged with “illegal activities in violation of state and federal law” if any of its 32,000 employees are terminated because they gave incorrect Social Security numbers to be hired.

“I am deeply troubled by Cintas’ recent policy change regarding the Social Security Administration’s ‘no match’ letters,” Mr. Thompson said in the Nov. 2 letter. “It is my understanding that hundreds of Cintas’ immigrant workers have received these letters. I am extremely concerned about any potentially discriminatory actions targeting this community.”

In June, President Bush proposed new guidelines concerning “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration, saying he wanted to make it easier for employers to verify workers’ eligibility and continue to hold them accountable for those they hire.

The Department of Homeland Security followed up on that announcement yesterday, formally releasing new regulations to help businesses comply with hiring requirements intended to reduce the hiring of illegal aliens — including setting guidelines for businesses when handling “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration.

The proposed regulation is subject to a 60-day public comment period.

“Most businesses want to do the right thing when it comes to employing legal workers,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. “These new regulations will give U.S. businesses the necessary tools to increase the likelihood that they are employing workers consistent with our laws.

“They also help us to identify and prosecute employers who are blatantly abusing our immigration system.”

But Mr. Thompson called the “no-match” letters a threat to workers who fail to reverify their information and called Cintas’ actions a “rash enactment of a proposed DHS regulation.” He said that by implementing “this incomplete regulation,” Cintas could be in violation of federal immigration law.

The seven-term congressman also said before the proposal becomes law, it must go through a rule-making process, “which could radically change the regulation or kill it all together.”

Cintas has issued letters to 400 employees in five states telling them they will be indefinitely suspended if they cannot resolve their mismatched Social Security number within 60 days.

“Cintas, like all employers, has a legal obligation to ensure all employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S.,” the firm said in a statement. “Cintas has not terminated any employees due to the Social Security mismatches and plans to continue its policy of placing these employees on indefinite leave until they produce the required documentation.”

In his letter, Mr. Thompson said his “apprehension” over the proposed policy was echoed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which said the proposal could result in “circumstances in which employers have incentives to take actions that violate … non-discriminatory provisions.”

As Homeland Security Committee chairman, he would set the panel’s agenda. Earlier this month, he also said Democrats planned to “revisit” legislation mandating 698 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border and might seek to scrap the plan.

Under existing rules, when a Social Security number does not match a name on a tax or employment eligibility document, the government sends a “no-match” letter asking that the discrepancy be resolved. Of 250 million wage reports the government receives each year, as many as 10 percent belong to employees whose names do not match their Social Security numbers.

“Identifying businesses that are habitually flagged for submitting mismatched Social Security numbers would bolster our worksite enforcement efforts,” Mr. Chertoff said.

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