Web Exclusive | April 2011 | By Jordan Melnick

Who’s Working in Your Kitchen?

Recent crackdowns signal to restaurant operators that the government is ready to end illegal hiring.

Recent government crackdowns on Chipotle and Pei Wei that forced both concepts to at least temporarily close locations have reminded restaurant operators that the government is taking illegal immigration very seriously.

The two incidents, in which illegal immigrants were found to be in each quick serve’s employ, came almost two years after the Obama administration decided to rein in the employers who hired illegal immigrants rather than go after the employees themselves, which had been the primary strategy up to that point.

In April of 2009, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) would reduce the need for large-scale immigration enforcement actions where employees were arrested. The focus instead turned to finding evidence to criminally charge employers.

ICE now uses tools like I-9 audits, fines, and debarment to combat the hiring of illegal immigrants, which might account for more than 700,000 of the industry’s 12.8 million employees, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Early this year, Chipotle fired 450 employees in various Minnesota locations stemming from an ICE audit. The Denver-based burrito chain later received Notices of Inspection for about 60 restaurants in Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well. The company is cooperating with ICE, “but we have not received any final determination,” says spokesman Chris Arnold.

In 2010, ICE criminally charged a “record-breaking” 180 business owners, employers, and managers/supervisors—up from 135 in fiscal year 2008 and 114 in fiscal year 2009, says agency spokesman Ivan Ortiz-Delgado.

Since January 2009, ICE has imposed about $50 million in financial sanctions. In fiscal year 2010, the agency debarred 97 businesses and 49 individuals, up from 30 businesses and 53 individuals in fiscal year 2009. In the same year, it conducted more than 2,200 I-9 audits, up from more than 1,400 in the year before.

Chipotle is not the only restaurant concept to come under scrutiny for hiring undocumented immigrants. In the last two years, McDonald’s, Sizzler, and Krispy Kreme have all made similar headlines.

In March, Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office deputies raided Pei Wei Asian Diner locations in metro Phoenix to arrest employees working with stolen IDs. While not a federal action, the raids show a general shift toward less tolerance for hiring undocumented workers across the country.

“Restaurant owners should understand that they are a target for this sort of challenge,” says Michael Wildes, an immigration lawyer at Wildes & Weinberg P.C. in New York.

Wildes says the Obama administration’s new employer-focused policy is a mere “Band-Aid” on the larger problem of illegal immigration in the U.S. and places a disproportionate burden on restaurants.

“They are scapegoats in an economy where people have less disposable funds to go out,” he says.

In response to the increase in federal investigations, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) has been lobbying the government for leniency on what it calls “paperwork violations” on I-9 forms, the one-page, proof-of-eligibility document every employer must file within three days of hiring an employee.

In fiscal year 2010, the ICE debarred 97 businesses and 49 individuals, up from 30 businesses and 53 individuals in fiscal year 2009.

ICE does not track how many fines it gives out for technical mistakes on I-9 forms, but NRA vice president of labor policy Angelo Amador says they are common, expensive, and all but unavoidable, especially in an industry with high turnover.

“Some of the mistakes are as basic as you forget to write the maiden name of an individual,” he says. “Anyone with more than a few employees is going to have errors.”

The NRA has asked Congress for a 30-day grace period for employers to fix technical errors.

“We’re not talking about fraud,” Amador says. “We’re talking about good-faith errors.”

The association also wants restaurant operators to be able to verify employee eligibility through the phone in addition to the existing E-Verify system, which allows them to check employee documents against a federal database.

There is a “high probability” Congress will enact these reforms, Amador says, but it depends a lot on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a case involving an Arizona law that requires employers to use E-Verify to check employee eligibility.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Obama administration both oppose the requirement. The NRA “could probably be able to support” a federal law requiring E-Verify if it meant a nationwide standard instead of different requirements in different states, Amador says. He expects the Supreme Court to decide the Arizona case by June.

In the mean time, restaurant operators are still adjusting to the Obama administration’s policy shift one year later amid a stubbornly slow economy.

“Just when the government should be getting out of the way of entrepreneurs, they are instead sharply increasing the cost of regulatory compliance for small businesses,” says Detroit-based Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen franchisee John Brodersen.

Brodersen says he has gone through three recent government audits and incurred expensive fines.

But not everyone in the industry is upset with the government’s actions. Jim Oberweis, CEO of Oberweis Dairy, said in an e-mail to QSR that his business has never incurred a fine for hiring illegal immigrants, adding that companies can use E-Verify to avoid hiring illegal immigrants “if they really wanted to.”

“For way too long, our government refused to take action against those companies hiring [illegal immigrants],” Oberweis said. “It is high time that the government take reasonable action, and I am quite pleased at the initial steps they have taken.”

Comments

The kitchens of America have become more plantation like than most people know. Many of the most famous, wealthy chefs have become more wealthy because of who they are not paying to do their work in the kitchen. Young chefs that spend thousands on their culinary education are not told that their direct competition for jobs are people that have better knife skills and won't talk back or have "ideas". Chef Bourdain has alluded to as much a few times recently, but I don't think that the average American actually understands how much hiring illegal kitchen worker effect a restaurants bottom line, and what some restaurants and chefs have done to make the money they do! I have travel all over this country and seen this in almost all it's forms. I could, and should write a book!

This is really sad.... The state of our economy and joblessness and every time I go to a McDonalds there's someone there who barely speaks English. We know illegal immigration is a problem in this country but yet we want to look at the rights of these individuals...but what about the rights of Americans who are struggling to find work while an illegal immigrant makes money and thrives...it's not right. It's not a true argument that the youth don't want to work at McDonalds or other fast food. That used to be a real opportunity to make money for young people as well as anyone who needed work, now you're lucky if you can get that job as an American. I worked at McDonalds as a youth, it was good job training and good money.

I agree with Chef Alisia's comments. I went to culinary school in addition to having several years of home instruction on Italian food plus living in Italy for close to four years. I could not find a job even with those credentials. I can even speak and understand some Spanish. I am still saddled with student loan debt and too much competition from illegal aliens. As far as I am concerned there is NO chance of anyone here who is a citizen to get a decent paying job in a restaurant.

This is so foolish. The government needs to know that all minimum-wage jobs are done by illegals. I challenge you to find a stable local kid who is willing to work for minimum-wage. The local kids prefer to be on welfare/UC, where they get better paid and do no work. So why would they work and get paid less ??? I am an employer who has employed dozens of local kids. First, they have an attitude, they do not want to work, they call in sick too often, they are late to work, ... the list goes on. If you compare this with Hispanics, you'll find that they work hard, they do have problems with English (some of them have acquired usable English skills), they value their jobs (even if minimum-wage). If the government removes Hispanics from hard-working low-paying jobs, then it is pretty certain that the economy and the government will collapse. This is a fool hardy subject. The people who make policy are sitting in air-conditioned offices who have no clues what their actions will do at the grass root level. Hope common sense prevails.

EMPLOYERS LIKE YOU ARE THE REASON I'M HOMELESS! It's so hard to get hired at a minimum wage fast food job and work my way out of homelessness! Everywhere I go, no one wants to hire me! And for the record, ASIANS are even harder workers. And why on earth would you hire dozens of immature kids? Find mature kids and adults willing to work their way out of poverty! Why the hell would you hire mediocre employees with an attitude? I have worked in restaurants with Hispanics and I am fluent in Spanish, and *multilingual*. I helped them translate orders from customers and two girls kept harassing me and asking me if I was Hispanic. We're all the same anyway! That's none of your business! You have no right to tell me I'm a "liar" when I say I am not from a Spanish speaking country. Just be grateful I care enough to help you on the job. I am benevolent and an advocate for all. I'm tired of people taking advantage of illegal immigrant Hispanics paying them low indentured servitude wages like how Black Americans were paid back in the day. I'm tired of Hispanics being discriminated against, being paid illegal wages (screams: HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE!) and Hispanics discriminating, locking up the industry. Quit spreading your nasty propaganda.

Ok, your comment is insulting. I am an American. Born and raised here like my fore-fathers before me. I have and still work 2-3 jobs at a time. I have a B.A. and over 30 years experience. I don't have a criminal background and I pay my taxes. How dare you assume every American kid is lazy and undeserving of a job! People like you set a precedent for hard-working Americans citizens and legal residents to be discriminated against and kept from finding decent work. I have talked to many people from various ethnic backgrounds who have been discriminated against because they aren't Latino. My friend (the only white employee) who worked at KFC 6months ago told me that a co-worker had the audacity to tell her to her face that she was "lucky to have this job because______doesn't hire non-Latinos."

HAVING WORKED IN MANAGEMENT FOR A LARGE NATIONAL CHAIN FOR MANY YEARS I BELIEVE ITSTIME FOR ACTION TO BE TAKEN. I BELIEVE THE 700,000 NUMBER IS WAY OFF BY THE MILLIONS. THEILLEGAL LABOR DOES NOT SAVE MONEY IN THE END. ILLEGAL EMPLOYEES MAKE ENTRY LEVEL JOBS A LIFE LONG JOB AND END UP COSTING EMPLOYEERS MORE BECAUSE A LEGAL PERSON WILL USUALLY WORK THERE WAY UP OR MOVE ON. IF WE DIDNT HAVE THE MILLIONS OF ILLEGALS IN THE USA WE WOULD SAVE BILLIONS EACH YEAR WHICH COULD BE USED TO BOOST WAGES IN THESE INDUSTRIES THAT FOCUS ON UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS. IF OUR GOVERNMENT REALLY WANTED TO DO SOMTHING THEY COULD GO TOANY RESTAURANT CHAIN AND FIND MILLIONS WITH VERY LITTLE EFFORT

Someone should check with the ZONI SCHOOL in NEW YORK CITY. This school is for individuals who want to study and learn English. I mean "STUDY AND LEARN ENGLISH IN AMERICA." Apparently the school issues student visas and many of the students end up staying in the city illegally. They stay past there deadline and continue going to the school, they work and they are here illegally. The school has a few locations, and most of the "students" remain in this country with no visa.

lots of schools are like this all over the country, especially here in new york... well, at least they're going to school. a cheap american school issuing a student visa is better than no school at all... it's probably harder for them to attend school in a third world country, anyway. sigh*

Illegals are cheap and "disposable." Who wants to pay more for their hamburger? They want to work for practically free. I say let's get rich off their backs, eh?!

You know what happen why Latinos are working in the kitchen. When the economy was so good in the 200os. Americans became SNOBS to that type of job, So while they were snobs to some jobs like Housekeeping, cleaning, kitchen, dishwashing and simple jobs they went in and do these jobs. They been around and won't leave. And they help their friends. They saw the OPPORTUNITY and went for it. And maybe the 60% snobs of America should say well I wish I did not think that because now I can't get a full time because MOST of them been there since the economy was good. So basically America you mess up giving up a job you could had when the economy crash.. OOOOPS!

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