What Employers Need To Know About I-9 Audits & Work-Site Investigation

With a stronger push for immigration laws to be strictly enforced, American businesses are quickly learning the importance of being Form I-9 compliant. In the last few years, the nation has seen the number of government investigations into I-9 compliance almost quadruple. While a company may not be able to escape a government audit, it can be proactive in ensuring its I-9 compliancy.

The Form I-9 and the Importance of Compliance

The Form I-9 is a legal document that employers in the United States must have their employees complete to determine their eligibility to work in the country. The form is a one-page document that consists of three main sections:

  • Section 1: Employees are responsible for accurately completing this section of the Form I-9 by their first day of employment.
  • Section 2: Employers are responsible for collecting and authenticating required I-9 documents from employees to verify their eligibility for employment within three days of their start date.
  • Section 3: Employers will need to complete this section in the case that an employee’s work authorization expires, their name is legally changed, or they are rehired within three years of the date listed on the Form I-9.

In order for companies to be compliant, each employee’s Form I-9 must be completely filled out and accurate, the required identification documents be acceptable, and timelines and guidelines of all three sections must be observed. While it may sound like a fairly simple process, it can be quite complex and often requires the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Handbook for Employers M-274.  Many companies are also choosing to enlist the help of digital I-9 compliance software as an extra layer of protection and to help streamline the process.

For employers who have a large number of employees and in multiple locations, the process of becoming I-9 compliant becomes even more difficult. One of the primary issues is storage. All forms must be stored properly and be accessible to management and the government in the case of an audit.

While there are many reasons companies need to be I-9 compliant, the primary reason is because it is the law via the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. When a company is found not to be in compliance with Form I-9 protocol, it could be putting its entire operation at risk. It is not uncommon for companies to be issued civil or sometimes criminal penalties for these violations, all of which can result in hefty fines that can impact a company’s bottom line.

However, by understanding what it means to be I-9 compliant, why it is important, and what to expect if your company is audited by the government, you can ensure your company is adequately prepared.

What happens during an ICE worksite investigation or audit?

In the event of an ICE audit, a Notice of Inspection (NOI) is typically provided to an employer. Legally, the employer has three days to provide the agency with its I-9 forms and other forms of documentation such as a business’ Articles of Incorporation, licenses, list of current employees, and even a copy of the payroll.

After the proper forms and documentation have been presented to the government agency, the agency conducts an inspection of the I-9 forms. While it is possible for the agency to grant the company ten days to make appropriate corrections for technical or procedural violations, the company could still be fined for mistakes. These financial penalties can range from several hundred to more than a thousand dollars per violation.

Fines are commonly issued in the case of a criminal violation, which may include a company’s documented pattern of using fee-based recruiting, hiring, or referrals of employees unauthorized to work in the U.S. Unfortunately, punishment can extend beyond fines and may result in debarment by ICE, which can prevent the company from being considered for federal contracts and receiving certain government benefits.

Common Results of an I-9 Worksite Investigation

Once ICE has completed reviewing the I-9 forms and documents, it typically notifies the party that was audited in writing of the outcome. Here are several more common types of notifications and what they mean.

  • Notice of Inspection (NOI) Results: A result by this name generally comes in the form of a letter to the audited party to let the representatives know that the company was found to be compliant. This document can also be referred to as a compliance letter.
  • Notice of Discrepancies: This result lets an employer know that there was some difficulty determining an employee(s)’ work eligibility based on the paperwork submitted by the employer. The employer is then expected to share that notice with the employee so it can present additional documentation, if available, to establish eligibility to work.
  • Notice of Suspect Documents: An audit result by this name is a step down from the previous two results. This type of notification lets the audited party know that ICE has found an employee that is unauthorized to work, and that civil and criminal penalties could ensue. That said, ICE generally gives both the employee and employer a chance to present additional documentation that proves the employee’s eligibility to work if the audited party or employee deem the finding to be an error.
  • Warning Notice: This audit result can mean that some substantive verification violations were found, but may not warrant a fine due to the expectation of an employer’s future compliance.
  • Notice of Technical or Procedural Failures: This notification makes an employer aware of technical violations that were found. The employer then has ten business days to correct the forms with uncorrected technical and procedural failures being subject to fines.
  • Notice of Intent to Fine (NIF): This type of notification generally equals dollar signs. A notice of intent to fine can mean that an employer may be issued a fine due to violations related to substantive, uncorrected technical errors, knowingly hiring, and continuing employment of unauthorized workers.

How Digital I-9 Compliancy Software Can Help

Digital I-9 compliance software is quickly becoming the wave of the future. Companies are turning to this resource to help them stay I-9 compliant. In general, the software helps minimize human error and provides timely reminders for action items employers must complete to stay compliant.

Compliancy software provides employers and employees with a basic checklist of information needed to complete the Form I-9. This helps employees prepare ahead of time and gives employers a visual reminder of what is completed and what still needs attention.

One of the most user-friendly features of compliance software is the alerts. The program should catch blank or incomplete fields and missing signatures. Any of these things could cause a company to be found non-compliant, but the software program helps to find these inconsistencies and draw an employer’s attention to them before submitting the form. The program should also assist in tracking expired Form I-9 documents, so employers are able to work with the employee to attain updated documents before they become a compliancy issue.

Another benefit of implementing I-9 compliancy software is that it offers document archiving and centralized reporting. Less paper is required when forms and required documents are digitized, and it also helps the program track which forms need to be retained and which do not. Centralized reporting allows employers to provide requested I-9 information quickly and efficiently in the case of government audits. As an added bonus, centralized reporting can be utilized at any point by management, which can help them stay proactive about their company’s I-9 protocol.

With thorough understanding of the Form I-9, its guidelines and regulations, and possibly the assistance of digital I-9 compliancy software, employers can have more peace of mind about being proactive and keeping the company in good standing with the government.