Workers' Immigration Status At Issue

Baltimore County May Ask Contractors To Use E-verify

February 01, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

At the urging of construction unions, Baltimore County Council members are pushing for a new requirement that contractors working for the county verify the immigration status of their employees or risk losing county business.

The council is scheduled to take up a resolution today urging County Executive Jim Smith to encourage contractors to vet new hires with the federal E-Verify program.

"If a business knowingly hires illegal aliens on a county contract, they should lose that contract and the ability to bid on future contracts with the county," said Council Chairman John Olszewski, who introduced the measure with Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver. "These are tough times, and we want to make sure we are not taking jobs away from those who should have them."

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz added, "This policy would essentially remind vendors that they have to obey all the laws."

The resolution calls on Smith to encourage contractors to use E-Verify, an online system operated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration that lets employers compare details from a new hire's employment eligibility form with information from more than 500 million federal records.

A spokesman for Smith said the county's purchasing office is looking into complaints by construction unions of contractors cutting costs by hiring undocumented immigrants, and how E-Verify might help. Spokesman Don Mohler said officials want more information before changing current policy.

The Ironworkers Union is one of several that have asked the council to "take steps to secure the livelihood of [its] constituents," said Bernie Engel, the union's business manager. A third of the Ironworkers' 600 members are unemployed, Engel said. Their hourly pay rate, which includes health and retirement benefits, is about $40. Engel said workers in the United States illegally often get $12 an hour with no benefits.

"It is hard for a union guy to get a fair shake," said Jimmy Saunders Jr., an ironworker for 25 years. "These low wages make it impossible for us to compete."

Rod Easter, president of the Baltimore Building Trades Council, which represents 15 unions, called the council resolution "a step in the right direction."

"We know illegals are working around the area," he said. "No one is opposed to people who are legally in the country having opportunities to go to work. But, when you are illegally here and a contractor knowingly hires you, you are taking a job away from a law-abiding citizen, who lives here. Both the employer and illegal employee are committing a crime and should be punished."

E-Verify has its critics. Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, described it as a good tool that improves continually, but said it still needs fine-tuning.

"Because of inaccurate information in some databases, a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant may be wrongly not confirmed and denied employment," he said. "The system also can tell an employer whether a name and Social Security number are in the database, but it is not an effective deterrent against identity theft."

At CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group, director of services Kerry O'Brien said, "E-Verify can lead to discrimination against immigrants and distracts from the real issue. The council's time would be better spent in calling on Congress for comprehensive immigration reforms."

Olszewski said he drafted the resolution to "level the playing field" and to help recoup lost government revenues. State and federal income taxes are lost when illegal workers are paid under the table."This policy will protect jobs and benefit the government as well," Olszewski said.

Absent sanctions, Engel said, "Unscrupulous contractors will continue to exploit illegal immigrants on county-funded construction projects and pay substandard wages. This makes it impossible for a contractor paying a fair, living wage to be competitive in the bidding process."

He told the council last week that it "should be concerned about our industry and whether our members can support their families and pay their mortgages."

O'Brien said the real issue is a need for comprehensive immigration reform.

"Everyone is hurt by the current system," she said. "Businesses, unions and workers."

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