As word spread that Boone Brothers was using E-Verify, the flow of applicants thinned and the Omaha commercial roofing company turned to new and unusual recruiting tactics.
A recent hiring blitz went beyond newspaper ads and into atypical spots such as high schools — and the local prison system.
“You have to work a little harder and be creative,” human relations director Penny Jochimsen said of post-E-Verify recruitment efforts.
Boone Brothers, which has offices in three states, is one of more than 7,200 Midlands employers that have adjusted practices to participate in the largely voluntary E-Verify program designed to weed out immigrants working in the U.S. illegally.
In Nebraska — and to a lesser degree in Iowa — E-Verify use is growing, and this year Nebraska is on pace to hit a record number of queries. But participating companies remain a small portion — nearly 12 percent of Nebraska employers and 3 percent of Iowa's.
With Congress considering making E-Verify mandatory for all employers, The World-Herald sought feedback from area businesses, government officials and others about the Web-based worker verification program that since 2009 has been required for Nebraska employers that do business with the state.
Also since 2009, the U.S. government has required certain employers with federal contracts to tap the program. And 19 states besides Nebraska (Iowa is not among them) have passed laws or executive orders that require E-Verify for at least some employers.
Most businesses, including Boone Brothers, that agreed to be interviewed said they didn't mind jumping through the extra administrative hoops, as it shows they're trying to comply with federal hiring rules.
Such “good faith” efforts could benefit companies targeted in immigration-related federal audits, said Omaha attorney Amy Peck.
Employers were quick to point out, however, that the program is not foolproof or error-free, as evidenced by the arrest of three E-Verify-approved roofers at a federal base. Jochimsen said Offutt gate-keepers detained the men for allegedly not having proper work authorization, and she was able to show the “angry” general contractor that they'd cleared E-Verify.
“I would not give it up,” Jochimsen said. “It's nice backup.”
If employers are not enrolled in E-Verify, they generally rely on a more traditional method where job seekers fill out paperwork known as I-9 forms. Employers generally trust that the proof of identity provided is legitimate.
Nationally, about 8 percent of employers use E-Verify, said Tim Counts, spokesman for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.
» The 5,000 Nebraska employers currently registered in E-Verify represent a 300 percent jump in enrollment since 2009. Employee checks have grown from about 77,000 in 2009 to nearly 185,000 so far this fiscal year.
» Iowa's 2,200 registered employers represent a nearly 150 percent increase over 2009. Queries multiplied during that period from about 79,000 to nearly 115,000.
» Nationwide, nearly 475,000 companies use the system and this fiscal year have made about 21.5 million queries, said CIS.
This fiscal year, the federal government was allocated $111 million to run E-Verify. Access for private businesses is free, although they incur administrative costs related to a staff member's plugging in job candidate information to a computer and following up on job candidates who require further checks.
Neither federal nor state officials could say how many Nebraska participants were pushed to enroll because of the state law, or because they simply chose to.
Critics say, however, that the level of Nebraska participation shows resistance, especially since the state has had 15 years to warm up to the process.
In 1999, when the U.S. government introduced the voluntary program to Nebraska, it was used in only five other states, was experimental and was referred to as the Basic Pilot Verification Program. Nebraska's early participation was tied to the federal government's decision to conduct another immigration-enforcement program called Operation Vanguard, which was controversial in that it singled out Nebraska's meatpacking industry.
As national debate over illegal immigration intensified — and Congress failed to revamp the immigration system — frustrated state legislatures began to pass local laws mandating use of E-Verify for at least some private and/or public employers.
Short of a voluntary online survey conducted by the Nebraska Department of Labor, which drew low response, lawmakers have done little to gauge the impact of the Nebraska mandate passed as Legislative Bill 403.
Of the 388 employers that answered the 2011 survey, about 40 percent said they used E-Verify. Of 17,446 contractors registered in the state contractor database, 23 percent indicated they used E-Verify.
Labor Commissioner Cathy Lang said in a letter to the Legislature that her department has encouraged E-Verify for all businesses.
In a recent interview, Lang said the state has no enforcement arm to check whether employers comply with the E-Verify law. She said any grousing that occurred early on about the program has died down.
“I don't get complaints,” Lang said. “I just think it is a non-issue, meaning that people just comply.”
Brad Ashford, an Omaha state senator who helped frame the E-Verify legislation, said the intention was never to punish immigrants or employers but rather to encourage contractors to use the tool. If a problem arises with a firm found not to be using E-Verify, Ashford said, the law could be applied to yank the contract.
Ashford maintains that the only effective solution to illegal immigration must come from Congress. He supports proposed federal legislation to expand E-Verify if it also includes provisions allowing a path to legalization for qualified undocumented workers currently in the country.
Jim Partington of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, an early opponent of E-Verify, said his concern had faded, in part because the system had gotten more “user-friendly.”
He said his restaurant group has shifted its focus to the bigger picture: reforming national immigration laws.
Sean Rogers, vice president of Staff Mid-America Inc. in Omaha, said his 400-employee company signed up for E-Verify when it was a hot issue and it has proved to be a bonus when attracting clients for which they find workers.
Extra steps to run new hires through the verification system are now routine, he said.
“No nuisance; just another step we have,” said Rogers, whose company plans to expand to Lincoln.
E-Verify signs displayed at Staff Mid-America tend to ward off most people who don't qualify, he said.
The program is not without flaws, however. Rogers said, for instance, a misplaced hyphen can reject a qualified resident.
Illegal workers also have slipped through by pairing their picture with an actual citizen's identification and Social Security number available in the underground market, Peck said.
“It's fairly easy to evade E-verify,” she said. “It is a step in the right direction toward a compliant workforce, but not fail-proof by any stretch of the imagination.”
Meat-processing titan Tyson Foods, which employs 8,700 Nebraskans and 9,000 Iowans, has been using E-Verify since 1998.
Mark Gordon of Tyson's human resources department said it is not the “silver bullet” but is among several tools that the multistate company has invested time and effort in to ensure a qualified workforce.
“We believe it's been well worth it because of the potential disruption” of alternatives, he said. Government raids or audits can cut into production and staff time, for example.
E-Verify also has ensnared legal workers.
Juan Leyva of Hastings, Neb., said he lost more than a month's wages when his Social Security number — granted legally under a federal program aimed at youths who grew up in the U.S. — was flagged as bad.
“I was like, 'What can I do? I know my number is good. Something is going on.'”
The 21-year-old made a special trip back to the Grand Island office that issued him the number. He stayed in contact with the irrigation company, and weeks later got a call that he'd been cleared.
Such E-Verify errors have declined, according to a 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The study showed the rate of rejected applicants later found to be legal has declined to 0.3 percent.
A separate survey released this year showed a satisfaction score of 86 (out of 100) among E-Verify users.
Yesenia Peck of the Nebraska Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said much of her membership remains wary of E-Verify — and potential discrimination by companies that might use it only on brown-skinned people.
For Boone Brothers, it's a welcome tool that is not without a downside.
After the company first enrolled in 2010, Jochimsen said, as many as half of applicants' Social Security numbers were rejected.
That rate dropped drastically as word spread of E-Verify, she said. Still, she said, walk-in candidates aren't lining up for the hot, labor-intensive roofing jobs. “It's hard to get your normal 19- or 20-year-old in here because we're spoiled,” Jochimsen said.
Boone Brothers earlier this year posted want ads on school bulletin boards and reached out to the Community Corrections Center-Omaha work-release program to beef up for a huge summer job at a new suburban shopping mall.
Rooftop laborers still had to be 18 years old. And the inmates, who are close to release dates, were screened to ensure they weren't violent offenders or pedophiles, Jochimsen said. She said the 15 or so work-release roofers typically arrive to work by van. Their checks are sent to the corrections system.
“If the system feels they are trustworthy enough to go out on work release, I have to be trustworthy enough to put them on a roof,” Jochimsen said.
Boone Brothers has about 120 employees in Omaha and about 70 in the Kansas City area and Sioux City, Iowa.
Recruiting is tougher, Jochimsen said, but she wouldn't trade the “peace of mind” E-Verify offers.
“It has saved us,” she said.