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State to check workers' status on public projects

| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
A backhoe operator for Plum Contracting Inc. in Pittsburgh works on Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation's Heritage Trail project in Salem Township on Friday, December 28, 2012. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Pennsylvania next week begins its quest to block undocumented workers from jobs paid with public money, and one legislator behind the new law wants to expand the electronic verification rules to all employers.

“This is just the first step,” state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said about the law that goes into effect on Tuesday, which will require employees of companies hired for public construction projects of $25,000 or more to vet workers through the federal E-Verify system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.

Contractors and subcontractors on state public works projects must check employees' personal information against federal databases in the E-Verify system to ensure they are legally permitted to work in the United States. The state Department of General Services will oversee compliance, expected to cost the state $1.3 million in the first year.

Penalties for not complying with the new law range from warnings to three-year bans from state projects and fines up to $1,000.

“I have been working here in Pennsylvania and with state legislators across the United States to advance policies that shut off the economic incentives that draw illegal aliens to our state and country,” Metcalfe said. “Requiring the use of the free federal E-Verify system is a common-sense policy that will ultimately stop illegal aliens from stealing American jobs.”

In the near future, Metcalfe said, he plans to reintroduce legislation “to require the use of E-Verify for all employers in the commonwealth.”

Although industry officials say they generally accept the new law as a cost of doing business, immigration advocates criticize such measures.

“We think the mandates are problematic because at their core they really don't provide solutions,” said Emily Tulli, a policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington. “What we need is a way for workers to become qualified and aboveboard. E-Verify does nothing toward that.”

Tulli said other states have shown that many employers do not comply with the laws, and the E-Verify system can produce false results for which there is no clear appeals process.

“E-Verify mandates create unfair competition for high-road employers,” Tulli said. “And the more people you apply it to, the more errors you are going to have.”

The federal E-Verify site shows more than 350,000 employers enrolled nationwide.

Pennsylvania becomes the 22nd state to pass E-Verify legislation; 20 states have voted down such bills, according to the law center.

Instead of state-by-state employment verification laws, a national system with a legalization component is needed, Tulli said.

Plum Contracting Inc. of Greensburg voluntarily began using E-Verify last year, said President Jack Mills. The fact that it will become mandatory should have no impact, he said.

The Westmoreland County company employs between 40 and 200 people, depending on the season, Mills said. It has state contracts for work in Bethel Park, Jeannette and Salem.

“It's just more paperwork,” Mills said. “It's not going to be a big deal for us at all.”

Richard Barcaskey, executive director of the Beechview-based Contractors Association of Western Pennsylvania, said he does not recall any immigration issues with public works contractors in the region during the past 15 years.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

In large part, Barcaskey said, most public works contract bidders divulge employee rosters to government agencies as part of pre-qualifying and prevailing wage programs as well as using union members and working on projects paid for with federal money, which require E-Verify checks.

“For regular public works contractors it would be very hard to use workers who are not documented to work in the United States anyway,” Barcaskey said. “I think (lawmakers) want to tackle this one step at a time. And the first people you aim at are the ones you have the most control over.”

Future laws, he speculated, could target residential contractors and other industries.

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