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Employers Warned About Invalid Social Security Numbers

Benefits: Agency is trying to reduce errors, but immigrant groups fear harassment.

May 11, 2002|JENNIFER MENA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Social Security Administration has sent a record number of warnings to employers that have reported incorrect employee Social Security numbers.

In an effort to reduce errors in its system, the agency this month sent 750,000 letters to companies throughout the United States telling them they had reported invalid numbers, Social Security spokeswoman Mariana Gitomer said. About 30% are in California.

From 1937 to 2000, the last year counted, the agency received $300billion in wage reports from employers involving 219 million Social Security numbers that it could not match to its records, she said.

If the administration could not match the Social Security number and name to its accounts, the wage reports were sent to an electronic lost and found, where they have sat for decades.

Historically, the agency has pursued only a small portion of those mismatches with query letters to employers. However, in 2001, the agency sent 11,000 letters to a select number of companies with errors in an effort to rectify mismatches, which can shortchange beneficiaries who don't get credit for all wages earned. For years, the agency has been criticized for failing to address the problem.

Now that a push to resolve the issue is underway, immigrant rights advocates say they fear that undocumented workers using false Social Security cards could face harassment or firing.

Business owners, meanwhile, say they worry that the letters could bring greater scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Many immigrants use Social Security numbers that are not their own," said Carlos Olamendi, an Orange County restaurateur and immigrant rights advocate. "These checks only serve to hurt immigrants and to hurt the companies that depend on them. What it means is that an employee needs to keep changing jobs. No one wins. The employee loses wages; the employer has to train another employee."

Other immigrant advocates say some employers already are coming down on workers whose Social Security numbers were questioned by the agency. They allege that a hospital in Granada Hills has used the letter to intimidate workers trying to unionize. The hospital denies the allegation.

Meanwhile, businesses receiving the letters are unsure about what they should do. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been besieged with calls, said Theresa Brown, chamber manager of labor and immigration policy. The chamber is recommending that the companies seek legal counsel. The letters "are causing confusion and disruption in the workplace," she said.

Social Security spokeswoman Gitomer said the letters are not intended to nab illegal immigrants, but rather to reduce the administration's error file, which has grown exponentially. The errors mean that employees might not get benefits owed them upon retirement.

Employers Should Not

Take Punitive Action

Nor does the agency intend to share the information with the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the Internal Revenue Service, she said. The letter states that employers should not use the information to take punitive action against an employee.

"Some of these are legitimate errors and not illegal aliens," Gitomer said.

Some numbers may be reported incorrectly because some women who marry do not report their new surnames to the government, she said. Some are clerical errors. Also, because Latinos often use two surnames, there can be reporting problems.

Fred LeFranc, chief operating officer of Ruby's Restaurant Group in Newport Beach, said he received such a letter and has asked employees to check on whether the mistakes were clerical.

If not, he said, "I would have to terminate a worker if the document was not proper. You don't want problems with the INS."

But LeFranc said the letters are troublesome: "There is really no indication what you are supposed to do about this. We inspect documents. Our managers are trained to verify the proper documents, but they are not experts."

Hugo Camacho's concern is more immediate. The organizer for the Service Employees International Union Local 399 said Granada Hills Community Hospital has used the mismatches to intimidate housekeepers who are trying to organize.

"They went to workers and told them they had 24 hours to bring the correct Social Security number or 'you're out,'" Camacho said. But he acknowledged that no one has been fired.

Thomas M. Wallace, the hospital's president and chief executive, confirmed that the hospital is asking employees to deal with reports of names and Social Security numbers not matching.

But he said there is no effort to intimidate anyone, and suggested that Camacho was trying to use the issue to gain votes to unionize.

"We are treating ... all of the employees that have come up with this equally, whether they are seeking out union representation or not," Wallace said.

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