Contractors wonder why they should be forced to use a federal E-Verify system with documented flaws in spotting unauthorized workers.
I-9 forms, contractor registrations, prevailing wage reports and other state documents are good enough, said Jerry King, comptroller for Wisconsin Rapids-based Eagle Construction Co. Inc. Requiring use of E-Verify, he said, just adds to the mountain of work required to do business.
“How much information do they need about us?” King said.
State Sen. Jim Holperin, D-Conover, has introduced a bill that would require contractors bidding on state projects use the E-Verify system to find out if their employees are eligible to work in the United States. The bill would give the state authority to terminate a construction contract if a contractor does not use the program.
E-Verify is a free Internet-based system, operated by the federal government, that lets an employer determine the eligibility of an employee to work in the United States.
Thirteen states and the federal government require varying degrees of E-Verify, said Marilu Cabrera, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Holperin said he introduced the bill because his constituents asked him. If the federal government can use E-Verify on construction contracts, he said, Wisconsin should follow suit.
“It’s in the best interest of the state to hire citizens,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s any kind of comprehensive fix.”
But according to a December 2009 report by Westat, a contract research organization based in Washington, D.C., E-Verify wrongly clears illegal workers about 54 percent of the time because it cannot detect identity theft.
Cabrera said the government is working to fix those problems, and many employers throughout the country regularly use the program.
But Holperin’s bill is premature until the kinks are straightened out, said Jim Boullion, government affairs director for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin.
“You don’t want to mandate a program,” he said, “that has so many questions at this point.”
The Boldt Co., Appleton, began using E-Verify last year, said Randy Haak, the company’s general counsel. The contractor works on projects in various states, and there are some contracts in which E-Verify is required.
“We started using it as a backup for our paper documents,” he said. “As we become more electronic, contractors are going to see these changes whether the state mandates it or not.
“But until the system is proved to be reliable, all we’re doing is duplicating work we’re already doing.”
State Rep. Mark Gottlieb, R-Port Washington, said he will introduce in the state Assembly a bill identical to Holperin’s. Like Holperin, Gottlieb said he does not know of any illegal employees working on state projects, but he said the bill is not supposed to be reactionary.
“I think if you ask anybody, ‘Before someone gets a state contract paid for with taxpayer dollars, should those workers be legally employed?’” he said, “the answer’s going to be yes.”
King agreed, but said there only are so many hoops a contractor should be forced to go through.
Eagle does not use E-Verify.
“I think it’s unrealistic for state or federal government to have these employers have to research this stuff and put in the hours to comply with the law,” he said. “But who’s footing the bill for those extra hours? We are.”