A Washington food processing conglomerate paid more than $200,000 in federal fines for its discriminatory practices during the employment eligibility verification process.
Coming in the immediate wake of Tax Day, it makes sense that a number of lawsuits related to work authorization are initiated or settled in May, given that the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Justice and Customs and Immigration Services are all separately reviewing companies' tax and employment eligibility paperwork. May 2017, thus far, has seen several such suits.
The latest of these was noted in a May 17 settlement announcement by the DOJ. Pasco Processing, LLC, and its current parent firm Washington Potato Company agreed to jointly pay well over $200,000 and observe the terms of various other penalties, due to proven accusations of employee verification practices influenced by bigoted attitudes. That being said, even businesses that adhere to all appropriate anti-discrimination laws are capable of compliance failures that simply result from human error, so it's prudent to review examples of noncompliant businesses and see what they went through.
Investigation resulted from long-term violations of immigration law
The employee verification-related misdeeds of Washington Potato Company first came to light in the latter months of 2013, according to the Justice Department's recently released statement on the investigation and resulting lawsuit settlement. DOJ started specifically looking into the practices at a Pasco Processing facility located in Pasco, Washington, in November 2013 and stated in its lawsuit that the company required different forms of work authorization for alien residents lawfully permitted to live and work in the U.S. than it did from American citizens.
In many instances where equal opportunity protections applying to employment eligibility are violated, lawful permanent resident workers have been asked to show their Permanent Resident Cards to prove their legitimacy. These cards, issued to legal, non-citizen immigrants by the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency of Homeland Security, are on the list of acceptable documents that citizens and lawful permanent residents alike can show to a company's HR personnel, but they aren't specifically required by any law to do so and can use other items instead. DOJ's suit, filed Nov. 14, 2016, detailed that Washington Potato Company had control of the Pasco facility's hiring procedures, and for approximately 3 years - 2013 or earlier until November 2016 - required green cards of any non-citizen employees who wished to work at the plant.
Per standard procedure in such cases, Washington Potato and Pasco were ordered to allow regular audits of their hiring practices by DOJ investigators, strengthen their internal anti-discrimination policies and pay a fine of $225,750, as stated in the settlement agreement.
Pasco embroiled in other major dispute
Legal troubles for the Pacific Northwest food processor didn't end with that settlement. According to Capital Press, Frank Tiegs, who owns Washington Potato, Pasco Processing and various other companies, sued agribusiness firm J.R. Simplot - which had custody of Pasco until recently - to ensure his takeover by asserting that the rival company forfeited its stake.
Conversely, Simplot alleged in a countersuit that Tiegs engaged in witness intimidation and other outright acts of corruption, both to complete the Pasco annexation and increase profits by supplying Pasco and other subsidiaries with a surplus of low-quality produce and crops from other farms he owned. This, along with the anti-discrimination suit, paint Washington Potato in an extremely negative light, though no ruling has emerged on the Simplot case.
What owners and HR can learn
It doesn't take xenophobia and corrupt business habits to falter in I-9 compliance. All it takes is a few minor mistakes on several forms. The penalties levied by DOJ and Homeland Security are the same regardless of cause.
As such, HR leaders should look to the benefits of implementing Form I-9 and E-Verify software solutions that can make the verification process more accurate and efficient. Discover how I-9 Advantage can help employers ensure their compliance with employment eligibility verification laws, and mitigate legal risk, by contacting an I-9 software expert at 800.724.8546 or click here to schedule a live demonstration.