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LOS ANGELES -- President Donald Trump's administration is notifying tens of thousands of employers that the names of some of their employees do not match their Social Security numbers, a move that is forcing businesses across the country to face the loss of thousands of workers who lack legal status.

The Social Security Administration has mailed "no-match letters" to more than 570,000 employers since March, sending shock waves through the hospitality, construction and agriculture industries, which rely heavily on workers who are in the country illegally. The letters have left many employers conflicted, uncertain whether to take action that could result in losing workers or to risk fines down the road.

The notices do not necessarily require employers to take action, but direct them to take steps to reconcile mismatches, which would require contacting the workers. Workers in the country illegally who are notified of the letters by their employers often choose to quickly resign, fearing scrutiny from federal immigration authorities. But employers who do nothing also could face enforcement actions.

"There is a high level of anxiety over these no-match letters," said Angelo Amador, regulatory counsel at the National Restaurant Association, which represents about 1 million food-service establishments. He said the association has been barraged with emails and phone calls from concerned companies.

An estimated 7.8 million people in the country illegally were in the labor force in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Most pay Social Security taxes for which they receive no credit because they are using bogus Social Security numbers. For years, the Social Security Administration notified employers when the number on an employee's W-2 form did not match a name on file.

The government officially suspended the use of no-match letters in 2012, although the practice had actually been discontinued years earlier, after the government faced litigation. The resumption appears to be a response to the "Buy American, Hire American" executive order signed by Trump to protect U.S. workers and reduce illegal immigration.

While there are many possible reasons for discrepancies between names and Social Security numbers, including typographical errors, clerical mistakes and name changes, the lack of lawful immigration status is a common one.

Most employers had not seen no-match letters in more than a decade, prompting some to say they wondered whether their return was politically motivated.

"The timing is interesting, given the priority placed by this administration on immigration," Amador said. "We are waiting to see whether this turns into immigration enforcement."

Mark Hinkle, the Social Security Administration's acting press secretary, did not respond to a question about whether the administration was providing its data to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

"Social Security is committed to maintaining the accuracy of earnings records used to determine benefit amounts to ensure people get the benefits they have earned," he said in an emailed statement. "If we cannot match the name and SSN reported on a W-2 to our records, we cannot credit earnings to a worker's record."

The administration of President George W. Bush tried, and failed, to introduce a "no-match" program in 2007 that would have held companies liable for employing people working illegally by imposing stiff penalties on the companies. The program was crafted after Congress failed to pass a bill to legalize the 11 million people illegally in the country.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unions and trade groups won a lawsuit later that year that claimed the policy could lead to discrimination against or termination of native-born American workers and legal immigrant workers. The suit also claimed that the regulation would pose a heavy burden on employers.

The latest letters appear to avoid the legal pitfalls identified in the earlier litigation because, unlike those drafted under the Bush program, the current letters do not threaten employers with enforcement action or penalties.

Immigration lawyers have been inundated with inquiries in recent months. Kathleen Campbell Walker, who practices in El Paso, Texas, said one of her clients, a small restaurant chain, could lose a third of its workforce. Another, which boasts 50,000 workers in multiple states, also had been alerted to discrepancies by the government.

Jeff Joseph, an immigration lawyer in Denver, said that half the dairy farms he represents have received no-match letters in the past two months.

The $1.3 trillion construction industry, which relies on large numbers of workers who are illegally in the country, is among the hardest hit.

"At a time of low unemployment, we need to be out there finding workers and lobbying for sensible immigration reform instead of reacting to no-match letters," said Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Brothers, a large construction company with operations in Texas and Georgia that has received dozens of no-match letters.

Employers in agriculture reported a substantial number of no-match letters as well.

In California's agricultural-rich San Joaquin Valley, 49 growers and other businesses that collectively employ 39,978 workers have been alerted by the government that 24,132 employees had irregularities.

While employers must give workers a chance to rectify any discrepancy, "as soon as you tell the workers, they are going to disappear," said Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., whose members have received no-match letters.

Business on 05/17/2019

Print Headline: 'No-match' letters a worry for employers

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