yakima city council

Local businesses that want to contract with the city may soon be rid of a requirement to use a federal verification service to vet whether potential employees are legally authorized to work.

The Yakima City Council passed a resolution in June 2011 requiring the use of E-Verify for city contracts. E-Verify is a free, federal electronic employment verification program that helps ensure that employers only hire legal employees.

Concerns have surfaced in the ensuing years about the use of the verification system, including that the requirement creates an unfair playing field for small businesses when bidding for city projects and that the system catches undocumented workers only half the time.

District 1 Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez first questioned the city’s E-Verify requirement at an economic development committee meeting on May 2. On Tuesday, she moved for city staff to draft a resolution rescinding the requirement.

The motion passed with a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Kathy Coffey and council members Jason White and Gutierrez voting in favor and Councilwomen Holly Cousens and Kay Funk dissenting. Council members Brad Hill and Carmen Mendez were absent.

City history with E-Verify

E-Verify became mandatory for federal contracts in 2009 but is voluntary for state and city entities. The service matches I-9 form data over a secure internet connection with Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases to validate the lawful employment status of new hires.

The City Council adopted the use of E-Verify in June 2011 by a 4-3 vote, after it rejected a similar proposal by the same vote split in 2010. Changes to the 2011 proposal included set bidding thresholds for using E-Verify: for service contracts costing $2,500 or more and for public works contracts starting at $5,000.

The resolution allowed waiving the requirement for certain contracts — including architectural, legal, engineering, and banking services — and also allowed the city manager to waive the requirement on a case-by-case basis.

Toby Guevin, a state policy and legislative manager with OneAmerica, an immigrant and refugee advocacy organization, reached out to the City Council on the day of the vote to express the organization’s opposition to the requirement.

Guevin wrote that E-Verify was an inefficient and ineffective verifier of employment eligibility, presented barriers for authorized workers, and unnecessarily burdened small businesses.

Furthermore, E-Verify could not effectively identify fraud — such as when an unauthorized worker would submit employment information of an authorized worker. As a result, the verification system only caught undocumented workers about 54 percent of the time, Guevin said, citing a 2009 study.

That happened in Yakima in April 2011, when the Yakima-based grocer Fiesta Foods was forced to fire workers after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited the company and identified at least 24 current and former employees carrying potentially fake documentation.

Fiesta Foods was using, and had been using, E-Verify, according to a June 2011 report from the National Immigration Law Center.

Council discussion

City and County Purchasing Manager Sue Ownby spoke to the council Tuesday about E-Verify.

Councilman Jason White asked how the requirement was impacting local businesses. Ownby said she had received complaints from small businesses over the years that the city’s contract terms are demanding, including a Washington contractor’s license and workers compensation, among other factors.

Gutierrez said the policy has dissuaded small and locally owned businesses from bidding on city projects given the cost of training employees to use the system.

“This policy is another level of red tape for businesses that want to contract with the city,” she said.

White said he did not support additional burdens of bureaucracy that were not state mandated. Funk said she did not have enough information about the system, noting that the information included in the agenda packet came from 2011.

The 3-2 vote means that city staff will draft a resolution that will appear at an upcoming council meeting, with time for public comment and further council discussion.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Dulce Gutierrez said rescinding E-Verify would benefit small and locally-owned businesses.