Union challenges use of E-Verify background checks at Waste Management
on March 13, 2013
Just as its landfill and clerical workers were about to go on strike last December, Waste Management Alameda County set up meetings with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6 to negotiate wage increases and working conditions. The strike was called off.
Later that day, four Waste Management employees—three from recycling centers in Oakland, one from the Altamont Landfill in Livermore—were notified that their E-Verify background checks had come back incomplete. E-Verify cross-references an employee’s I-9 form, which verifies citizenship, with Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases, telling an employer whether the person they just hired can legally work in the United States.
“They found several of these workers did not have documents to work,” said Craig Merrilees, communications director of the ILWU, which represents all four workers. “So those workers were called in and they were terminated.”
And the union doesn’t think that’s a coincidence.
Although the E-Verify program is designed for use as soon as someone is hired, union representatives say that all four workers had been employed at Waste Management for more than a year. Most companies cannot use E-Verify retroactively, said Emily Tulli, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Washington D.C. “E-Verify should only be used on new hires,” Tulli said. “It shouldn’t be used on folks who are already part of the work force.”
In a complaint filed in February with the National Labor Relations Board, the ILWU alleges that Waste Management interfered with its employees’ right to organize and strike. The union claims that Waste Management retaliated against workers by using E-Verify to produce background checks on established employees, and that workers did not have the opportunity to notify their union or seek legal representation before meeting with their employers. Of the four, three were fired.
Agustin Ramirez, the union’s lead organizer, said Waste Management used E-Verify as a tool to flex its power over its employees, sending a clear message about what the company could do if the workers decided to organize. “It cannot be a coincidence,” Ramirez said. “The timing of these workers, they were called in when [the strike] was about to happen.”
David Tucker, spokesperson for Waste Management, denies the union’s allegations. Tucker said that an internal audit had revealed incomplete paperwork from E-Verify background checks that happened at an earlier time, although he could not give an exact date. “Information fell through the cracks,” Tucker said. “When it came to our attention, we spoke to our employees.”
When the workers could not present paperwork to defend their ability to work legally, they were let go, he said. “To make the connection that this is something that is retaliatory is unfounded,” Tucker said.
More than 400,000 employers use E-Verify, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the program with the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Verification Division and the Social Security Administration. The system is advertised as fast, free and easy to use. More than 98 percent of employees are given the green light to work after an E-Verify background check, according to the agency.
But some critics say that E-Verify is often misused. In a report Tulli presented to a House subcommittee on immigration policy and enforcement in Washington D.C. in February, she argued that “employers readily use immigration compliance tools, such as verification and re-verification of employees’ work authorization, to retaliate against workers who complain about mistreatment and to undercut workers’ efforts to improve their working conditions.”
Tulli said employers misuse the program if they start using it as soon as their workers start to organize or if they use it on a select group instead of the entire workforce. And, she said, there’s little punishment for misuse. “The only penalty that currently exists is that the employer cannot use E-Verify anymore,” she said.
Before the Waste Management workers were fired in December, landfill and clerical employees at the company had been negotiating for new contracts for two and three years, respectively, said Ramirez. All four of the employers were planning to support the strike, he said. The contract negotiations included discussion of wage increases, benefits and other improvements to working conditions.
Working in the landfills or the recycling centers is no easy job. Refuse and recyclable collection workers have the fourth highest fatal work injury rate in the country, according to a study released last year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Victoria Leon, who works as a sorter at the Davis Street Recycling Center in Oakland, said she sees everything from needles to dead animals come through on the recycling line. Several years ago, Waste Management had to hire an exterminator to take care of rat infestations so bad that workers cleaning the machines would be kneeling down in rat urine and feces, Merrilees said. Last year, a recycling worker named Evangelina Macias was killed at the job site after a truck ran her over. In a formal response issued earlier this year to the National Labor Relations Board that addressed a series of workplace safety allegations from the union, including complaints about rat infestation and Macias’ death, Waste Management officials called the death “a terrible accident” that “had nothing to do with WMAC’s unremitting commitment to safety.”
“The way things have evolved, the evolution of these jobs have resulted in low paid work that’s quite dangerous,” Merrilees said. “At a certain point, things happen and people decide to take action. When we decide to do something together, then things can really change.”
The union’s strike had been scheduled to start on December 10 at 2 a.m. But Waste Management officials scheduled meetings to negotiate the terms of the contracts, halting the strike.
According to Leon, her brother, Miguel Nunoz, was called into the office later that day. He had been working as a recycling sorter for a year and a half at the Davis Street Recycling Center. The strike effort focused on contracts for landfill and clerical workers, she said, but the two of them, like others who work in the company’s recycling unit, had planned to support it. Nunoz went up to the office alone, without union representation or his brother-in-law, who waited outside, Leon said. Nunoz had not had a green card when he was initially hired, Leon said, but he wasn’t fired until that day.
“Our concern is why after a year and a half [did] they come back and check everything again?” said Leon. “Out of the blue, they just asked him to come to the office and that’s it.”
Nunoz, who has been in this country for more than seven years and has a two-year-old son, is still unemployed, said his sister. He is looking for work.
Leon has since become an outspoken critic of Waste Management and E-Verify. Representing the union and other workers, she spoke in front of the Oakland City Council in February to bring this situation to the council members’ attention. “The goal is to keep the council members informed of what’s happening in this little corner of the world,” Merrilees said. “Workers want to keep the council members informed about problems as well as progress.”
The union filed its claim with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year. Attorney Peter Saltzman, who represents the union, said the board is investigating the situation, and has not yet decided whether it should issue a formal complaint against Waste Management.
In the meantime, contract negotiations between the union and Waste Managemet are still ongoing, Tucker said. “We would like to move past this,” he said. “We have great employees. … We believe that we can get through the negotiations and provide an opportunity for both sides of the table.”
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