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In a country whose foreign-born population has eclipsed 13 percent of the total (some 41.3 million people), hiring immigrants has become as inevitable as it is important for quick-serve restaurant operators.
And by keeping abreast of relevant laws, filing the right paperwork early and often, and ensuring all employees feel comfortable and heard regardless of their first language, operators can bring out the best of an increasingly diverse U.S. workforce.
“Restaurants offer a great first job or first step in a career,” says Michael Mabry, chief operating officer of Plano, Texas–based Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes. “Starting at the unit level and working your way up through the system is open for anyone. As leaders of any industry and business owners, it’s simply the luck of the draw that we were born in the U.S. We have to offer the same opportunities we had just by birth to anyone willing to work for it.”
Whom can I hire?
Arianne Bennett, who owns Amsterdam Falafelshop in Washington, D.C., employs many Hispanic immigrants by “hiring naturally from the city’s diverse neighborhoods,” she says. The challenge for many—particularly new—operators is simply knowing what’s required of them from a documentation standpoint, she adds.
“Some people just don’t know,” Bennett says. “Maybe you’re a small business owner just getting into the fast-casual industry. Especially as an emerging franchisee, you want to be on the right side of the law. You don’t want to be in business for 10 or 15 years before discovering that you’ve been doing something incorrectly and are now facing serious legal problems over it.”
Quick-serve chains must first verify that new hires are authorized to work in the U.S., according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Because permanent residency is not a requirement to work in the U.S., employers requiring applicants to have a particular citizenship or immigration status (such as permanent resident or “green” card) actually exclude some authorized candidates, thus violating federal anti-discrimination laws.
In addition to permanent residents, those who have been granted asylum or refugee status or those who have been admitted in work-related nonimmigrant classifications may be authorized for work as a direct result of their immigration status, the USCIS states. Other aliens may need to apply individually for employment authorization.
Limited-service chains looking to avoid a situation like Chipotle’s forced firing of more than 600 workers in 2011 after a federal immigration audit found that some were illegal can cross-check new hires using E-Verify, the federal online employment eligibility program.
E-Verify compares an employee’s information taken from the Employment Eligibility Verification Form (I-9) with more than 455 million Social Security Administration records, more than 122 million Department of State passport records, and more than 80 million Department of Homeland Security immigration records, according to USCIS.
The free-to-use program doesn’t require special software—just a Web browser and Internet access. It’s also voluntary, though some states have passed legislation making it mandatory for certain businesses, with penalties for noncompliance ranging from fines to temporary and permanent revocation of business licenses.
Although participation in E-Verify will not necessarily shield employers from possible enforcement action, those who properly use the program do have a “rebuttable presumption” that they did not knowingly hire an unauthorized alien, says a USCIS spokesman.
In addition to using E-verify for new hires, Bennett says she keeps abreast of laws—which not only vary at the state and municipal levels, but also change periodically—by calling her local employment office at least once a year.
Mooyah also uses E-Verify in states where it’s mandated. For hourly workers, many of the chain’s franchisees use online recruiting and onboarding portal TalentReef, which tracks E-Verify, I-9, and W-4 (tax status form) submissions.
“Folks can also use it to fill out applications, do interviews, and watch videos during the interview process,” Mabry says.