"If things don't get worked out in a couple months, we're just supposed to fire someone?" Hauge asked. "What happens if the data is wrong and you fire them? Does that open you up to a wrongful-termination suit?"
Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, disagreed. "If employers act in good faith and make an effort to comply with the law, there will be a safe harbor provision for them," he said.
Businesses should not be surprised by the new enforcement initiative, Bush administration officials said. The government has been sending out the "no-match" letters to employers since 1979.
"There's nothing different with the letter," said Mark Hinkle of the Social Security Administration. "What is different is an upcoming Homeland Security regulation that will be clarifying what businesses need to do if they receive a no-match letter."
No-match letters may be sent when there are inconsistencies between a worker's tax forms and records -- such as an individual's birth date or name spelling -- that the Social Security Administration has on file.
In 2005, the administration sent 8.1 million letters to workers at their home addresses, asking them to resolve differences. About 1.5 million letters were mailed to the workers' place of employment when no home address was available.
For businesses that had more than 10 employees with discrepancies in their record, a third type of letter is mailed. Last year, the administration mailed 138,000 of those letters to employers, Hinkle said. This year, they anticipate a slight uptick to 140,000.
With the Homeland Security crackdown, Hinkle said the agency was expecting "some increase" in phone calls and foot traffic at its 1,300 offices across the country. "We really don't have a projection," Hinkle said. "We handle millions of phone calls and millions of visitors and millions of claims a year. So we'll deal with it as it occurs."
Although many employers have still to learn the details of the regulations, the major trade groups protesting the action expect Homeland Security to act soon despite industry objections. (emphasis added)
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