Computer ‘Raid’ in Vernon Leaves Factory Workers Devastated

Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2009

No immigration agents descended on Overhill Farms, a major food-processing plant in Vernon. No one was arrested or deported. There were no frantic scenes of desperate workers fleeing la migra through the gritty streets of the industrial suburb southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

For more than 200 Overhill workers, however, the effect was devastating: All lost steady jobs last month and now find themselves in a precarious employment market, without severance pay or medical insurance. It wasn’t a hot tip or an undercover informant that helped seal their fates, but a computer check of Social Security numbers.

“A desktop raid” is how the workers’ representative, John M. Grant, vice president of Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, described the scenario.

Overhill, a $200-million-a-year company that provides frozen meals for clients such as American Airlines, Panda Express, Safeway and Jenny Craig, says it had no choice: An Internal Revenue Service audit found that 260 workers had provided “invalid or fraudulent” Social Security numbers. The government took no action against the workers. But Overhill did: All of the employees were fired May 31.

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But the Overhill case illustrates how desktop raids can ravage immigrant families, even without arrests and deportation. Employers facing stiff fines and potential prison terms for hiring illegal immigrants may decide to fire employees who have suspect paperwork.

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Overhill says it gave the workers 30 days to correct the problem with the IRS and provide the company with verification, but none did so.

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Overhill, whose workforce is largely Latino, says it has no idea of the legal status of the fired employees. No one has formally accused them of being illegal immigrants. Still, the company argues that it risked potential criminal liability under tax and immigration laws if it continued to employ them after the IRS audit.

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IRS officials declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns. Although the federal agency regularly alerts employers about workers with incorrect Social Security or tax identification numbers, it does not mandate that those employees be fired.

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All of Overhill’s dismissed factory hands were hired before the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security’s so-called E-Verify system, which allows employers to confirm the legal working status of new hires electronically, verifying Social Security numbers and other data. The program was designed as a weapon against the vast trade in fraudulent and stolen Social Security numbers. Overhill is now using the system for new hires.

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Many [former employees] have been in the United States for a decade or more and have U.S.-born children. They see no option of returning to Mexico and its enduring lack of opportunity and social mobility. They worry about missing rent payments, being unable to pay medical bills and having no money for food.

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