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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

The new I-9: Employment verification form updated; penalties raised

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) logo is

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) logo is seen on July 22, 2014 at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

Form I-9, the federal form employers and employees must complete to verify employees’ identity and eligibility to work in the United States, has been updated — and the penalties for mistakes and failure to comply have increased.

While the revised form and higher fines were established before the Trump administration, immigration has taken a contentious front seat in Trump’s first days in office, and ensuring employees are vetted properly should be at the forefront for employers, experts say.

For the first time there’s a downloadable PDF version of the I-9, with “smart” features aimed at reducing errors.

Employers should familiarize themselves with the changes and work to ensure accuracy, especially considering I-9 penalties have gone up.

“There’s been a significant increase,” says Caroline M. Westover, a partner and chair of the immigration law practice at Bond, Schoeneck & King in the firm’s Syracuse office.

In 2016 the federal government implemented higher fines for employers who commit immigration-related offenses, which include Form I-9 violations, she says. The range of fines for I-9 paperwork errors increased to $216 to $2,156 per individual, up from $110 to $1,110, Westover says.

The penalties were adjusted for inflation, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The new amounts took effect for penalties assessed on or after Aug. 1, for violations occurring on or after Nov. 2, 2015, ICE representative Rachael Yong Yow says.

Employers should take notice, since “this is still a form I see a lot of mistakes on,” says Westover. Employers had to start using the new form Jan. 22 for initial employment verification and any applicable re-verifications, such as when an individual’s work authorization has expired.

Joseph N. Impastato II, CEO of Eastpointe, Michigan-based I-9 Advantage, a provider of Form I-9 and E-Verify software compliance services, concurs, noting that when the firm does audits for companies to see whether their I-9s are compliant, usually more than 90 percent of the forms contain errors.

So how does the new smart PDF help?

It adds drop-down menus, calendars to fill in dates, and on-screen instructions, says Marc Villella, I-9 Advantage’s vice president of technology and operations. There’s also a revised printed form.

Both the company and employee must sign the form, and the company must keep a paper or digital copy in case of an audit, Impastato says.

Enforcement officials “can inspect the I-9 for any current employee or even some employees that have left the company,” says Henry Mascia, an associate at Rivkin Radler in Uniondale whose law practice focuses on immigration and civil litigation.

He advises clients to do a self-audit, by randomly selecting a few I-9s from their files to see whether they’re properly completed.

Make sure employees who handle employment verification are trained and aware of the changes, Westover says.

The new drop-down menus may help reduce errors because there will be only a certain number of options to choose, including allowable verification documents, Mascia says. There’s also an area where employers may include information about employees with special circumstances.

Prestige Employee Administrators in Melville, which provides human resources services, has sent two client alerts on the I-9 changes, says Sarah Diele, senior manager of client services. “A lot of our clients are interested in electronic versions of forms, so this is perfect,” she says. “It will [help] keep employers more compliant as it will guide them through the proper fields.”

That was the intent, says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Steve Blando. The goal was to “develop a form that would help reduce technical errors which might result in fines or other penalties.”

Fast Fact:

What’s the chance you’ll be audited? Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted 1,242 Form I-9 inspections in fiscal 2015, down from 1,320 in 2014.

Source: ICE

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