Employers today have an ever-growing to-do list to keep their companies in good standing, but perhaps one of the most important items on that list is ensuring I-9 compliance.  This one page legal document which is required of every employee in America must be completed correctly and maintained properly for an employer to stay compliant.  Without I-9 compliance, an employer is at risk of severe penalties that could negatively affect their company’s bottom line.

What is the Form I-9 and Why Employers Need to be Compliant

Every employer in the United States of America is required by law to confirm the identity and employment eligibility of each member in their workforce via the Form I-9.  There are three main parts to a Form I-9.

  • By the first day of employment an employee is responsible for filling out section one of the Form I-9 with their personal information and attest that it is true.
  • Within three days of an employee’s start date, an employer must examine and vouch for the authenticity of required I-9 documents that show an employee’s eligibility for employment.
  • Section three is for employers to complete in the case that an employee’s name is legally changed, the employee’s work authorization expires, or the employee is rehired within three years of the date on the Form I-9.

The importance of being I-9 compliant extends well beyond the fact that it’s the law, it can also mean avoiding expensive penalties.  If a company is found not to be I-9 compliant, the company can be subject to hefty fines that can affect their bottom line.  Particularly for smaller companies, large fines could even put the existence of the business on the line.

Most Form I-9 penalties are incurred in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) audit or ICE raid.  If a notice of inspection is provided by ICE, companies generally have three days to produce the required paperwork.  An ICE raid does not typically provide a company with any warning or lead time for paperwork.  During the last few years, ICE worksite investigations regarding I-9 compliance have almost quadrupled.  With this increase, companies must be more vigilant in their I-9 record keeping than ever before.

What Employers Need to Know About Being I-9 Compliant

  1. It is the law.

The first step in an employer being I-9 compliant is to abide by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which requires employers to verify the completion of the Form I-9 and the required documentation for each employee.

  1. Fill out the form.

There are three main parts to a Form I-9.  Employees and employers must work together to ensure that the form is completed according to the time deadlines set by law and that all necessary I-9 documentation is collected and valid.

  1. Keep good records.

The I-9 forms an employer keeps can be deemed invalid and subject to a fine if they are not accurate, complete, or timely.  Forms with incorrect answers or blank fields can be a noncompliance issue.  Forms that are not completed in the correct timeline designated in each section of the form are also subject to noncompliance.  If there is evidence of insufficient identification documents required by the Form I-9, a company can be fined for being out of compliance.  With the introduction of E-verify services, employers are also required to keep a copy of employees’ photo identification on file.

  1. Follow up on documentation with expiration dates.

In some instances, an employee’s citizenship status of good standing is intact when hired, but the documentation showing eligibility for working in the United States can expire.  It then becomes the employer’s duty to obtain new and satisfactory proof of eligibility to work in America prior to the expiration date.

  1. Designate a specific place for all I-9 forms to be filed and stored.

This requires a company-wide effort to store all I-9 forms in a specific spot for easy access and form retrieval.  Companies with multiple locations will need to set a policy in place that can be followed across the board.  If a Form I-9 is completed by an employee but the employer accidentally misplaces it, an audit or raid by ICE can find the company noncompliant, making the company subject to hefty fines.

  1. Meet form retention guidelines.

By law, employers must keep an employee’s Form I-9 for a minimum of three years from the date of hire or a year after termination.  After meeting those time requirements, the law dictates that employers destroy the forms.  If forms that should have been destroyed are found during an ICE audit or raid, the company can be fined for being noncompliant.

The Consequences of Not Being Compliant

The consequences of a company not being I-9 compliant can range from criminal to civil violations and affects companies in various degrees.

Criminal violations related to I-9 incompliance can be issued if an employer has a documented pattern of conducting fee-based recruiting, hiring, or referring employees that are unauthorized to work in the United States.

Civil violations are more commonly due to actions such as being noncompliant with employment verification, hiring or continuing to employ an unauthorized alien, committing document fraud or abuse, discrimination, or notifying the authorities of follow up confirmation of an employee’s eligibility to work.

For companies that are in the process of rectifying I-9 compliance issues before an audit or raid occurs, those good faith efforts could be looked favorably upon and result in a small degree of leniency.

How to Streamline the I-9 Compliance Process

While the concept sounds easy in theory, this one-page legal document can be so overwhelming to fill out that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services put together an entire how-to guide titled “Handbook for Employers M-274” just for completing the form.

For this reason, it is recommended to have one or more staff members whose job is to implement and oversee all I-9 compliance.  Due to the nature of the near full-time responsibilities for positions like these, companies are increasingly seeking to streamline the process by enlisting the help of companies that utilize I-9 compliance software.

While this software can vary from provider to provider, in general the following services are provided:

  • User Friendly Operations: With the amount of information required in the Form I-9, it can be easy to make an honest mistake that could result in a substantial penalty.  The software is created to help minimize human error by highlighting typos and incomplete fields.
  • Document Tracking: Keeping track of additional required documents can be difficult for a company to stay on top of.  Software programs usually provide reminder notifications to collect necessary identification documents.
  • Expiration Notifications: Keeping track of expired documents can be difficult for a company to maintain.  Some software programs speak directly to this need by providing reminder notifications to prompt an employer’s required action.
  • Centralized Reporting: This software feature can be particularly helpful in providing management with a detailed summary of their I-9 compliance with just a few clicks of the mouse.  Such reports can help companies be proactive all year long instead of waiting for a bi-annual audit to reveal their compliance status.

Whether it is through the detailed attention of dedicated staff members or with the help of an I-9 compliance software program, a business’s success depends on it today more than ever.