Vote set to keep illegal workers off the job in Pennsylvania
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HARRISBURG -- For six years state Rep. John Galloway has been on a crusade, pushing for a law to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting construction jobs in Pennsylvania.
The Bucks County Democrat could finally reach his goal this week.
The state House is expected to vote on one of two pieces of legislation -- House Bill 380, authored by Mr. Galloway, or a similar measure, Senate Bill 637, by state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.
Both bills would forbid publicly funded construction projects -- those receiving state, county and/or municipal funding -- from being awarded to contractors and subcontractors who hire, at low wages and with no health benefits, workers who can't show that they are in the country legally. Contractors doing projects with 100 percent private funding wouldn't be covered by the bills.
Mr. Galloway calls his measure "a jobs bill," aimed at giving jobs to unemployed construction workers who were born in the United States or who are foreign nationals who have entered the country legally and have the proper paperwork to show it.
"We have to make sure that tax dollars are being spent properly" and providing jobs to U.S. citizens or legal immigrants who need work, he said.
Ms. Ward said her bill "attempts to stop an illegal activity which costs the state money because illegal workers pay no taxes, take jobs away from our own workers and opens the door to possible national-security risks."
Legislators say privately they know that other employers, such as some of those in agriculture, are using undocumented workers to pick apples and grapes or do other backbreaking jobs. Farm owners contend they can't find American citizens willing to do such work.
Mr. Galloway originally wanted to include more industries in his bill but decided to concentrate on construction as "a good first step" because, he said, many undocumented workers are already working in the industry.
He said he knows of several locations in Bucks County where workers gather en masse on Monday mornings to be hired for construction projects. Contractors lower their costs by paying illegals low wages with no benefits, and there's obviously nowhere for the workers to go to complain, Mr. Galloway said. Such workers don't pay taxes because they don't report their income.
Both bills are similar to action taken in 2009 by the federal Department of Homeland Security, which requires all federal government contractors to verify the legality of their workers.
Mr. Galloway's bill got a boost last week when the House Labor and Industry Committee approved it and sent it to the floor for action. However, Ms. Ward's bill has already passed the Senate and also awaits House action, so either could be used.
Mr. Galloway said the jobless rate in the state's construction industry is "ridiculously high," while studies estimate there are at least 35,000 undocumented workers in construction in Pennsylvania.
The proposed legislation would require contractors and their subs to use one of two federal programs to check on the citizenship of their prospective workers. For workers born in America, employers would have to check their Social Security numbers and make sure they are genuine and not stolen. For foreign immigrants, a national identification system called E-Verify must be used.
It's an Internet-based system run by Homeland Security, and compares information from a worker's Employee Eligibility Verification form, which the worker fills out when starting a job, to online data filed by Homeland Security.
The Homeland Security website says that more than 288,000 employers, of various sizes, already use E-Verify to check workers' employment eligibility and immigrant status, with additional firms signing up. Participation is generally voluntary, but states like Arizona and Mississippi already require the use of E-Verify.
The Galloway bill would require the state Department of Labor and Industry to verify that all contractors and subs have checked the legality of their workers.
Companies that knowingly hire illegal workers would be banned from bidding on publicly funded projects for up to three years, depending on whether it's the first, second or third offense.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bills, saying the E-Verify system is "flawed" and has been known to wrongly identify legal immigrants.
"E-Verify fails to complete its only objective -- detecting unauthorized workers," said ACLU official Andy Hoover. A 2010 study commissioned by the feds found that almost all workers checked by E-Verify were listed as "work eligible," he said, but some businesses later discovered that as many as 10 to 15 percent of their workers were undocumented.
Mr. Hoover sees the bills as the first step toward "a national identification system" that would violate people's privacy and create "a honey pot for identity thieves."
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am