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Work Stoppage

"Smarter computers" at Social Security have put employers in a tight spot, and undocumented workers are feeling the squeeze.



Hilda Vasquez wears heavy black eyeliner every time she goes to protest against the company that used to employ her. She walks in comfy black worn-out sneakers that make her seven-month pregnancy easier to carry. Holding up a blazing red sign, the 33-year-old chants halfheartedly, slightly off the beat: "El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!" Then a rough translation: "The people united will never be defeated!" Improvised drums set the tempo as the lead voice wails through a megaphone, "El pueblo callado jamas sera escuchado!" Those who remain silent will never have their say.

When the racket subsides at one rally, Vasquez tells her story on cue to a Telemundo network reporter. Coached by members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN--a national grassroots group that has embraced her as its latest poster child--she speaks into the camera about being unemployed and pregnant and wanting to return to her job as a seamstress at Gingiss Formalwear. The prospect seems unlikely, regardless of how loud ACORN members scream and moan outside the tuxedo rental chain's swanky stores. Reemploying her, Gingiss officials have pointed out, would be illegal, because she was hired using a counterfeit social security card, which she purchased shortly after arriving in the United States.

"My baby is due in less than two months," says Vasquez, a tall, hoarse-voiced woman who migrated six years ago from Santa Maria Huatulco, a small town near the Pacific coast in southern Mexico. "No one is going to hire me in this state," she adds, arms wrapped around her protruding belly.

Vasquez is one of thousands of undocumented workers who have received "no-match" letters from the Social Security Administration. Their employers also received letters, informing them that some of their staffers' social security numbers as reported don't match SSA records. After receiving such a letter last March, Gingiss asked dozens of workers at its warehouse in suburban Addison to provide legitimate social security numbers before they returned to work. Most of them, including Vasquez, could not.

ACORN was quick to turn the incident into a cause celebre just in time for its three-day national convention, held here in early July. The victim was sympathetic: a pregnant undocumented immigrant talking back to greedy corporate America. The villain was classic: a national chain purportedly exploiting seamstresses who toil away in a windowless, un-air-conditioned warehouse for $6.50 an hour. By hammering Gingiss, ACORN representatives figured, they would deter other companies from letting go of workers as a result of the letters, saving thousands of jobs. As the two sides squared off, the Social Security Administration stood on the sidelines trying to look innocent, denying responsibility for having started the fight.

The agency first sent out "no-match" notifications in 1994, dispatching some 100,000 letters to undocumented employers who reported invalid social security numbers for more than 10 percent of their employees. The volume of letters remained steady until last year. This year the agency plans to send 750,000 letters to employers and over seven million to undocumented employees. "We now have faster and smarter computers," explains James Martin, SSA commissioner for the midwest. Another agency spokesperson said the effort is not a veiled attempt to crack down on illegal immigrants; the agency has no enforcement power and is not reporting the no-matches to any other government office. The increase in volume is merely a "decrease in tolerance" designed to enhance record keeping and "safeguard the integrity of the system."

Whether and how the letters will achieve these goals remains to be seen. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which makes it illegal to knowingly employ individuals not authorized to work in the United States, the IRS can fine employers $50 for each invalid social security number, up to $250 a year, with additional penalties for "willful violations." IRS spokespeople in Washington and Chicago refused to comment on whether the agency is tightening enforcement against employers whose workers have invalid numbers on tax forms. But employers face no fines or sanctions from the SSA, says Martin. "The agency that would take the initiative would have to be the IRS," and the IRS doesn't see the no-match letters.

The letters do accomplish one thing: they scare employers enough to make them rethink their staffing in light of immigration and labor laws. Before the no-match program, an employer could accept a job applicant's documents at face value and profess innocence if they turned out to be bogus. But the letters force the issue.

"People here were flabbergasted," says Gingiss president Mark Syrstad, when they received official notification that a chunk of their staff was employed illegally. "To have this level of representation was shocking." The letter Gingiss officials received on March 13 listed 87 of their 150 warehouse staffers as mismatches. A mismatch does not necessarily mean the social security number is fake; it can be the result of a typo, a clerical error, or a name change. Thirty-seven of the employees listed on the Gingiss letter were seasonal workers hired to clean, press, and ship tuxedos during prom season. They were no longer on the company's payroll by the time the letter arrived.

On Thursday, May 16, Gingiss officials handed out memos to the remaining 50, asking them to take the weekend to straighten out the mismatch. Soon rumors about mass firings spread through the ranks. Most of the workers under scrutiny, including Vasquez, figured they shouldn't bother trying to pass off a new counterfeit social security number. A handful decided to give it a shot. Gingiss officials said that 10 of the 50 memo recipients showed up for work the following Monday with new numbers; upon calling the SSA to check their validity, Gingiss officials found that 6 of those were still invalid. Only 4 of the original 87 memo recipients still work for the company.

Along with a handful of colleagues who also lost their jobs, Vasquez attended a June 8 meeting between immigrant activists and the SSA's James Martin, held at Saint Pius Church in Pilsen. A crowd of more than 500 mostly Mexican immigrants gave Martin an earful. They told him anecdotes about employers using the letters as an excuse to replace workers with benefits and seniority by outsourcing their tasks to inexpensive day-labor agencies. They told him about bosses who were storing the letters so they'd have an excuse to let go of workers as soon as someone else offered to do the same job for less pay. Like the controversy as a whole, however, the discussion soon shifted to more general stories about the plight of undocumented workers: mothers who always exhaust their paycheck before the next one gets cashed, parents struggling to put food on the table, dreams of higher education put on hold--problems perhaps exacerbated by, but not directly related to, the social security program.

Immigrant advocates requested that the SSA run full-page ads in the nations' largest newspapers asking employers not to take action against their employees based on the letters. They asked that the agency send employees a follow-up letter urging them not to let go of workers who had been working with invalid numbers. Lastly, they requested that Martin have the no-match letters sent only to employees and not to employers in the future.

"I could certainly understand their concerns, but I could not commit to that," Martin says. The letters' sole purpose, he explains, is to make sure benefits get earmarked to those who are eligible. "In pursuing it the way we have, we've been creating a back door into what is a national immigration problem. I know that, but I'm afraid it's a problem I don't have an answer for."

According to a study recently published by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, approximately 5 percent of the metro area's labor force works illegally. "Several industries are reliant on undocumented workers," says Chirag Mehta, a senior research associate at the center. The letters have been a "tremendous problem," he says, because in times of economic uncertainty, "they've become the perfect excuse to liquidate [the] labor force." For employers who decide they want to oust workers, "the letters give them that excuse," says Mehta. "It may not be a good one. It may not even be a legal one, but it's an excuse."

ACORN organized its first Gingiss picket line in front of one of the company's 28 Chicago-area stores during the first three days of July. Standing on the corner of Wabash and Adams, members handed out hyperbolic flyers urging passersby to take their tux business elsewhere. "Gingiss runs a sweatshop in Addison, where these high priced tuxedos are tailored, cleaned and shipped. Gingiss pays poverty wages to its workers...Disrespects and overworks employees...Recently Gingiss replaced over 30 long term, loyal employees with low paid workers and day laborers who earn less money and have no benefits, in order to cut costs and increase profits at the expense of the workers."

Executives at Gingiss met with ACORN representatives to stop the picketing. Mark Syrstad says the organization's demands are unattainable.

"Their position was that we should rehire these people, regardless of federal law and lack of documentation," he says. "We showed them our company policy and asked them: are you asking that we break the law? Their answer was that we ought to rehire these women or face a bad publicity campaign."

Illinois ACORN president Denise Dixon has written a sample letter for workers to send to their employers, pointing out that the SSA has no enforcement powers and warning that retaliation against employees with questionable numbers could be discriminatory and illegal under federal law. "What we're saying is, let these people work until they get their stuff together," she says.

That would be illegal, says Gingiss's labor attorney, Todd Steenson. "Gingiss stands ready to reemploy these people if they can provide proper documentation," he says. ACORN members "don't seem to want to explain why these people can't work right now."

Talks of amnesty for undocumented immigrants, stalled after September 11, have slowly resurfaced. House minority leader Richard Gephardt recently vowed to introduce a bill that would grant legal status to law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years and worked in the country for two. President Bush has publicly endorsed similar proposals that could naturalize most of the 8.7 million illegal aliens believed to be living in the country according to Census Bureau estimates. Foes of such initiatives have long argued that granting amnesty would reward lawlessness and encourage illegal immigration.

But a serious crackdown on illegal work is unlikely in the near future, according to most immigration experts. "If you were to deport all these people to Mexico, it would have a horrible effect on both sides of the border," says Margaret McCormick, president of the American Immigration Law Foundation. "In this economy, it's not that employers are condoning illegal work. They're desperate. It's more like they can't find anyone else to do some of these jobs."

And most employers reliant on cheap labor from undocumented workers will likely find ways to keep illegal immigrants on staff. Vasquez says she is optimistic about finding a new source of income once she gives birth. The time and effort she's spent rallying against Gingiss, on the other hand, have done little more than earn her a bright red ACORN T-shirt and resuscitate a question in many immigrants' minds. "Sometimes I think coming here may have been a mistake," Vasquez says. But she also feels her two American-born children will fare better growing up in the United States.

Gingiss officials have vowed to rehire some of their hardest working staffers if they can provide proper documentation. ACORN's unrelenting pressure, however, is unlikely to change the company's employment policies.

"They're suggesting that we should ignore the law just because we could get away with it," says Steenson. Gingiss, he added, will keep reminding them that "employers in this country have a responsibility to follow the law."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ernesto Londono.

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