S.C. businesses face E-Verify deadline

Terri Sharpe, general manager of the Charleston Crab House, goes on the federal government E-Verify site to check on the status of a new employee.

The clock is ticking down toward the start of a new requirement on small businesses across South Carolina. And many of them may not be aware of what's coming.

E-Verify answers

What happens on Jan. 1?
Starting on the first of the year, all S.C. employers must use the federal online system known as E-Verify to confirm newly hired employees are able to legally work in this country. Employers no longer will be able to check an employee's residency status through alternative methods previously allowed by state law, such as seeing if the employee had a South Carolina driver's license.
Who'll be checking?
The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation will be checking for compliance. Employers who don't comply with the law right away will be given three days to sign up, but after June 30, penalties will kick in, starting with probationary periods and leading to the potential loss of a business license.
What is E-Verify?
E-Verify is an online database network overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and used by employers to check the immigration status of workers. The system has been around for a decade, and was initially controversial. Public employers have been required to use it for the past two years in South Carolina, while private employers had the option of using it as one of several ways to verify employees' status.
Many large employers already use E-Verify. Across South Carolina, 10,556 employers were registered with E-Verify by the end of November.
E-Verify checks information from a new hire's employment eligibility verification (the federal I-9 form), against databases maintained by Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration and the State Department.

"What we're hearing is that nobody knows about it, and it impacts every business," said Mary Graham, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president for public policy and regional advancement. "Where we are right now is letting people know about this regulation."

Four weeks from now, every employer in South Carolina will have to start using the federal government's online E-Verify system to check the immigration status of newly hired employees. The requirement is part of a state immigration law approved in July, and businesses that don't follow the rules risk losing their licenses to operate.

Employers who already use the E-Verify system say it's no big deal once the system is set up. But the mandate extends to every business, including mom-and-pop stores that may rarely hire new employees.

The online system has been one of several options private employers can use to see if new employees are allowed to legally work in the United States. The use of E-Verify becomes mandatory Jan. 1.

Old hat for some

Many large employers have used the system for years, and all public employers in the state, such as governments and universities, have been required to use it since the beginning of 2009.

"The thought of it, I think, is what frightens people, but we really haven't had any problems," said Kaye Fowler, the main administrator of E-Verify at Clemson University, which has been using the system since the end of 2008.

Fowler said setting up the system initially took about 60 to 90 minutes, but she said it's easy to use once that's done. Last year alone, Clemson ran about 2,500 new hires through E-Verify, including students hired for campus jobs, she said.

Fowler said the E-Verify system sometimes flags new employees as potentially illegal -- what's known as a "tentative nonconfirmation" -- but a phone call to the Department of Homeland Security usually resolves the issue. Typically, she said, the problem turned out to be that the E-Verify data was not up-to-date.

Under South Carolina's previous regulations, private employers could use a South Carolina driver's license or licenses from a number of other states as proof of employment eligibility. However, many state's driver's licenses weren't considered acceptable proof, and neither was a U.S. passport or military identification card. E-Verify was a voluntary alternative.

Earlier this year, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling concluded that states can require employers to verify new employees' legal status, but only using the E-Verify system, said Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The revisions to South Carolina's law also eliminated fines for noncompliance, but businesses that don't use E-Verify risk losing their business licenses.

"People hear 'new government requirement' and they get scared, but this isn't something scary," Templeton said. "E-Verify is the cleanest way to verify immigration status, and employers have been using it for years."

Protection

South Carolina's immigration law is being challenged in lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department and American Civil Liberties Union, but neither suit targets the E-Verify provision. Those complaints are aimed at provisions that call for law enforcement officials to check people's immigration status.

Graham of the Charleston Metro Chamber said business groups would prefer that immigration issues be left to the federal government, but most don't take issue with the E-Verify system.

At Charleston Crab House, a restaurant with several locations, owner John Keener said his businesses started using E-Verify this year. Keener said he likes the fact that using E-Verify protects businesses from liability if one of their hires later turns out to be working illegally.

If the worker was approved through E-Verify, the business cannot be penalized. Like other E-Verify users, Keener said the system isn't difficult to use, once it's set up.

"You have to be pretty savvy to set up the program, or hire someone to do it," he said. "The first time we set it up, it took us several hours, but once you're set up, it's pretty easy."

For some businesses, the E-Verify mandate is an opportunity.

In Greenville, entrepreneurs Susan E. Crocker and Wanda S. Boyd formed the company E-Verify Experts LLC to manage the verification requirements for employers who don't want to do it themselves.

"Few employers want to handle such a technical process," Boyd said.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.

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