Businesses are wary |

Businesses are wary

Tom Halverstadt, general manager of the Country Lane Wholesale Nursery, works to prepare a tray of plants in one of the company's greenhouses in Franktown, Colo., Wednesday, June 28, 2006. A proposal to require employers such as Halverstadt to verify whether workers are in the country legally without providing a way to check status immediately is causing concern for some Colorado businesses. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER – When Country Lane Wholesale Nursery hires someone new, the Front Range business checks an applicant’s identification and sends an I-9 employment form to the federal government.It can take as long as nine months to hear whether the documents are bad, Country Lane general manager Tom Halverstadt said.Beginning next week, Colorado lawmakers will consider plans that could require employers to verify whether their workers are in the country legally or else lose the right to deduct their salaries on their taxes.Enacting such a requirement without providing a way to immediately check applicants’ status is causing concern for some businesses. Other critics worry about ethnic discrimination and a loss of workers to states without the same requirements.”You can’t just put it on the back of employers when the government doesn’t have a system in place to verify whether documents are fraudulent,” said Chuck Berry, president of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.”Once a system is in place, a vast majority of employers are anxious to comply.”Berry said many business owners agree sanctions are in order for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Yet verifying citizenship status isn’t easy.

Greeley-based Swift & Co. has been using a government pilot program that confirms whether Social Security numbers are valid. One shortcoming may be the program’s ability to detect when two people are trying to use the same number, spokesman Sean McHugh said.Employers are advised not to dismiss someone based on an incorrect Social Security number – leaving firms in a bind for keeping that worker on the payroll, said Sharon Harris, executive director of the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association.”We want secure borders. We also want to have a documented work force that is sustainable,” Harris said. “This is a federal issue. We really don’t believe this is something the states need to be spending time and taxpayer money on.”The Association of Landscape Contractors of Colorado also believes the issue is best left to the federal government.”What I worry about is (that) Colorado is going to make tougher rules than other states and part of the work force will leave,” Halverstadt said. “It’s my feeling businesses will lose a large percentage of our employees, everywhere from the service industry to the green industry.”

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, Colorado Restaurant Association officials said they were not convinced an employee verification system would work. Association President Peter Meersman said current law requires businesses to verify employment based on paperwork and documents that can be forged.”We think there ought to be a foolproof system,” he said, referring to the possible use of biometric information such as fingerprints or even DNA.The restaurant association supports a guest worker program with a path toward citizenship. It is pushing for an accurate and inexpensive method for determining immigration status.The Colorado Association of Home Builders is drafting a policy on the issue and had no immediate comment Wednesday. Colorado Ski Country USA, the group representing resorts in the nation’s No. 1 ski state, declined to comment until officials can review details of proposed legislation.Harold Lasso, policy and program development director for Denver’s Centro Humanitario Para Lost Trabajadores (“The Humanitarian Center for Workers”), said the proposed compromise looks like it will hurt everyone – immigrants, corporations and American workers.

“This is going to lead to a lot of profiling. It’s going to lead to a lot of citizens who are not white and don’t look like ‘an American’ to have to answer a lot of questions and provide a lot of additional documents,” Lasso said.And if American citizens are forced to produce extra documents to appease nervous employers, Lasso said, there will be no shortage of discrimination lawsuits.The cost of verifying workers’ legal status may lead some companies to cover the expense by offering lower wages and fewer benefits for all workers, he said.Halverstadt predicted that tougher immigration rules could affect many industries.Country Lane starts its employees well above minimum wage at $8 to $9 an hour, yet its help-wanted newspaper ads sometimes go unanswered.”If I try to get an 18-year-old kid and try to put a shovel in his hand, he’ll last two days,” Halverstadt said. “We have a problem of availability of labor as it is. There’s more work than there are true United States-born citizens who can do the work.”Vail, Colorado

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