Local institutions face challenges of E-Verify mandate
by Paige Rentz
May 10, 2012 | 4936 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Laura Copeland, a revenue specialist with the city of Jacksonville, sits at her desk with stacks of E-Verify compliance documents submitted by city vendors, which she updates on a daily basis. (Anniston Star photo by Paige Rentz)
Laura Copeland, a revenue specialist with the city of Jacksonville, sits at her desk with stacks of E-Verify compliance documents submitted by city vendors, which she updates on a daily basis. (Anniston Star photo by Paige Rentz)
JACKSONVILLE — The stacks of papers on Laura Copeland’s desk are large, color-coded and the source of a huge headache for city officials over the past several weeks.

Most days, she adds new paperwork to the huge binders listing businesses that comply with Alabama’s immigration law; each time she does, it’s a small victory for the city.

Just over a month after the E-Verify mandate of the Beason-Hammon Act — Alabama’s much-debated immigration law — went into effect, the city of Jacksonville is just beginning to adjust to the new way it conducts business. However, a bill proposed by Sen. Scott Beason, one of the named sponsors of the original immigration law, may change a process that has been widely interpreted by public institutions.

“My guys are used to getting out there and taking care of business, and now they can’t do business,” said Copeland, a revenue specialist with the city of Jacksonville.

The Beason-Hammon Act requires that any business entity or employer with one or more employees shall not knowingly hire or continue to employ an unauthorized alien and attest to this by a notarized affidavit and provide documentation that it is enrolled in the E-Verify program as a condition for any contract, grant or incentive award by the state, local governments or state-funded institutions.

The fight for vendors

The city of Jacksonville’s finance department sent out about 750 letters requesting paperwork be filled out and returned before the measure went into effect on April 1. Thus far, about 400 have been returned, with signed paperwork continuing to trickle in. Some vendors have not been certified, said Copeland, because of incorrect or incomplete paperwork.

In Anniston, Finance Director Danny McCullars said the city “is easing into it.” With about 2,500 vendors that the city uses on an annual basis, he said the progress toward bringing them into compliance is slow but steady. “It’s not a switch that could just be flipped on,” he said, estimating that about 20-25 percent of vendors have come on board.

“What’s disturbing is we occasionally have to go outside the city to get things instead of keeping the money inside of the city,” Jacksonville’s Copeland said. “We encourage citizens to shop Jacksonville first, and we try to do that also.”

Police Chief Tommy Thompson said city officials had developed relationships over the years with their vendors and had found the best prices for the city. But when E-Verify became effective, buying became much more complicated. “It’s been a problem,” he said. Just recently, the chief said, the department was finally able to order patches for police uniforms. The uniform companies were swamped with separate requests from all the Alabama municipalities they do business with.

The chief said that he had to wait three weeks to register for training with the Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police because they weren’t certified.

Thompson said that complying with the law to purchase even basic essentials like batteries can cost the city a little more money and a lot of headache. “I guess we’re supposed to defend it,” he said, “but I wonder sometimes.”

Despite intergovernmental transfers being exempt from the law, said Copeland, as Jacksonville officials have interpreted the law, the county and other public entities can be vendors for certain services, such as registration for city employees or other individuals for training. This also includes state associations if they have any employees. “If I write a check to them, they have to be certified,” she said.

Oil changes and brake work for police vehicles had to be postponed as well. Chuck Sparks, head of the Street Department, said the city’s garage was practically locked down for more than a week. “I probably went about seven working days that I didn’t even have anywhere I could buy a quart of oil from, much less a vehicle part,” Sparks said.

Sparks and other department heads took matters into their own hands and began contacting the vendors they dealt with most frequently, explaining their situation and trying to work with them on completing the necessary paperwork. Of the 60 vendors he contacted, he said 35-40 of them have come on board and been certified.

Copeland said that Walmart has been a big partner for the city of Jacksonville in a lot of ways for a number of years, but the company, though it uses E-Verify, has not submitted an affidavit of compliance and is no longer utilized as a vendor for the city.

“We’ve been asked to provide a worker authorization compliance affidavit,” said Bill Wertz, a representative for Walmart’s media relations office. He explained that the company does not believe that “off-the-shelf purchases of merchandise from Walmart, which are not pursuant to a contract, constitutes grounds for our requirement to sign this affidavit,” he said. “However, we don’t want our declining to sign the affidavit to imply our company is not fully committed to compliance with applicable worker authorization law. We are, in fact, enrolled in the E-Verify program.”

Copeland said that Jacksonville officials are now shifting their focus to where they can purchase items locally. Local merchants such as Food Outlet have taken up some of the slack for certain supplies like paper cups and plates for the Recreation Department.

Janis Burns, director of the Recreation Department, said it’s been tough not to be able to shop at Walmart for day-to-day purchases. “We buy a lot of smaller items, a lot of food items for different special events,” she said. “Just like anyone planning a personal party, we run out to Walmart to get what we need.”

With the senior dance coming up, Burns said the Recreation Department had to sit back and figure out how to replace the food trays it normally gets from Walmart for such an event. Her department’s after-school and summer camp programs are where they rely heaviest on Walmart for items like bubbles, sidewalk chalk or hula hoops, said Burns.

“It’s taken a lot more pre-planning,” she said. “Instead of, ‘Hey, Friday let’s have a hula hoop contest,’ now we have to take more time,” she said. It’s now a matter of finding a place to order hula hoops and have them in three weeks, she added.

Legislation without explanation

Implementation of the law has been hectic for Jacksonville officials, and is made more complicated by the fact that there is very little guidance about the process for documenting compliance. “The government mandated it, but nobody told us how to handle it,” Copeland said.

Tracy Roberts, deputy general counsel for the Alabama League of Municipalities, said the lack of a unified explanation for the law’s implementation has meant municipalities are having a hard time figuring it out as well. He said that with pending litigation challenging the law, the attorney general’s office isn’t really giving out any advice aside from three guidance documents it released last year.

“Everyone’s kind of left to their own devices to figure it out,” he said. “It leaves different agencies and different associations to advise their members.”

With pieces of the law stayed by the courts and bills to revise the law pending in the Alabama Legislature, the implementation of the law is still in flux.

For many, said Roberts, the guidance documents have seemed to create more questions than they’ve answered — a possible reason why more haven’t been released. When the league’s members call up for advice, Roberts and his colleagues do the best they can by pointing to the guidance letters, to interpretations from different case laws, and what has been redacted or stayed.

Members of the state legislature have debated the law since it was adopted and a number of bills have been filed to repeal or amend it. A bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Sanford seeks to, among other things, expand the ways contractors or subcontractors can comply with the law by adding an option to verify employment eligibility using a valid, unexpired Alabama driver’s license or nondriver identification card. Sanford said the bill, SB260, has made it out of committee, but he hasn’t been able to get it onto the floor for a vote.

Sen. Scott Beason and Rep. Micky Hammon have been working on a set of revisions to the law that might be taken up for a vote today, according to Derek Trotter of Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh’s office. The bill, HB658, would include two sections that address changes to the E-Verify process. As proposed, it would strike the requirement that business entities or employers, as well as subcontractors, shall attest by sworn affidavit that they do not knowingly employ, hire, or continue to employ an unauthorized alien.

Trotter said the version of the bill that the Senate will address will be revised since its passage by the House and would require another vote by the House if approved by the Senate.

For now, Roberts said, the league is simply focusing on helping municipalities with the law that’s there. “The most complicated thing is getting the affidavit from the contractors,” he said.

Inconsistency for vendors

For the vendors and contractors, it’s no simple task to figure out how to comply with each municipality. Coty Galloway, assistant manager of the Calhoun Farmers Co-op, said the worst part about the law for the vendors is that they have to complete the paperwork for each public entity they do business with. Different entities can have different types of paperwork.

“That’s probably my biggest complaint about it,” he said. “They should have had one form that they sent out.”

“It was aggravating at first because we’d never done it before,” Galloway said. He didn’t know what each entity did or did not require; some asked for notarized forms while others didn’t.

“What’s good for one should be good for everybody,” he said, “whether it’s for Jacksonville city or the State of Alabama.”

The process isn’t exactly efficient, either, with vendors like the co-op waiting to fill out paperwork until they get a new packet in the mail from another customer.

Ed Smith, owner of Municipal & Commercial Uniforms & Equipment in Birmingham has had to complete about 100 sets of paperwork. He echoed Galloway’s complaint about the disparity between each set of compliance documentation.

“Every city, every county, and each division within the state of Alabama has their own separate paperwork, and all of them are different,” he said. “There’s no common denominator to this.”

The worst set of paperwork Smith has encountered came from the state’s Department of Public Safety, which he said was about 20 pages long. “It was like dealing with an IRS tax return,” he said. “Half the stuff is not applicable to you, but you have to fill it out anyway.”

The city of Birmingham, he said, requires he fill out a new affidavit every time it issues a purchase order. Luckily, Smith has a notary on staff, he said, otherwise he would have to pay for each set of forms to be notarized.

Jacksonville’s Copeland doesn’t really see the process getting any easier. “There have been days that I have literally done nothing but E-Verify,” she said, noting that other members of the finance department have been picking up tasks she normally handles. “It took us awhile to get caught up,” Copeland said. Every afternoon, she tries to send an update to city officials letting them know which new vendors have come on board that day.

“If the department heads hadn’t stepped up to the plate, I don’t think we’d be as far along as we are,” she said. “They have really fought hard to get vendors compliant.”

One of Copeland’s biggest challenges is getting the general public to understand that the new process is something she has no control over. “We’re not choosing not to do business with them,” she said. “It’s not something we want to do. It’s tying our hands and makes it difficult for us to do business, just like it’s affecting our vendors out there.”

For the most part, city officials have found that the vendors are trying to help the city out, said Burns.

“Our local stores have been very good,” she said, adding that local vendors have been very good about trying to order anything for the city that they don’t have on their shelves.

At the end of the day, E-Verify is now the law, and the city must follow it, she said. “If somebody doesn’t want to comply with the law, we’ll go where our business is appreciated.”

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