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Immigration audits take aim at restaurant chains

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Illegal immigration has long been a serious area of concern for restaurant chains trying to comply with federal documentation requirements in an industry plagued with high turnover and the need to fill jobs quickly.

Recent federal immigration audits at Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota resulted in several hundred firings, followed by back-pay lawsuits by fired workers and an expansion of immigration audits to the chain’s 60 restaurants in Virginia and Washington, D.C. The burrito chain recently reported another quarter of positive sales and profit growth.

But Chipotle also began alerting investors in its 2009 Annual Report, long before it had been notified of undocumented workers in its ranks, that it had been subject to immigration audits and that there was the possibility that the discovery of illegal workers could negatively affect the chain’s financial performance.  “Proper worker documentation is a challenge for all employers, and we, like many of our peers, have acknowledged that challenge to our investors,” spokesman Chris Arnold told Reuters last week.

The changing face of enforcement

Toward the end of the most recent decade, federal immigration investigations largely took the form of sweeping raids that could decimate the workforces at farms and food factories. Since then, the Obama administration has taken a more measured approach, shifting the focus from employers to employees, with audits by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Audits at almost 3,000 companies resulted in about $3 million in civil fines and thousands of firings of unauthorized immigrants in the first six months of last year alone.

The requirements and the reality

Federal law requires employers to submit completed I-9 forms for each employee, which includes verifiable proof that the person is eligible to work in the U.S. There is a voluntary system set up by the government aims to help employers ensure that they won’t be breaking the law by making a hire, but many in the industry say the E-Verify system comes with a major drawback, and business interests including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are fighting efforts to make the system’s use mandatory. The system gives employers a clear “OK” on a new hire or offers a “tentative nonconfirmation,” critics say.

In other words, the worker’s papers may or may not be in order, and it’s up to the employer to do more digging in an effort to verify, take a gamble that the paperwork is authentic or pass up the prospective worker and move onto the next applicant. Companies determined by ICE to have one or more illegal employees on staff are required to fire those workers and face fines.

Restaurants have historically been a place where immigrants have taken the first steps on the path to their American dream. Today, immigrant labor makes up about a quarter of the restaurant industry’s workforce. As lawmakers debate immigration reform and whether illegal immigrants are taking jobs Americans would otherwise occupy, restaurant chains struggle against high turnover rates and the need to fill positions as quickly and economically as possible if they hope to keep their restaurants running.

Have you tried to hire workers whose documentation didn’t pass the federal test? What’s the most sensible solution to the immigration situation, from a restaurant hiring perspective?

Image credit: pixhook, via iStockphoto