Christmas at Woodfin Suites 

When Woodfin Suites fired its immigrant workers, was it obeying the law or dodging a living-wage ordinance?

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But Melquiades and her friend Dominguez believed Measure C would make things better for them and their co-workers. "Before it was approved, we cleaned sixteen suites a day, sometimes seventeen." Dominguez said. "A suite is made up of a bedroom, a hall, and a kitchen. We'd clean the whole thing in thirty minutes. When people would party and leave it dirty, we'd still have to clean it in that time."

Following the passage of Measure C, Woodfin Suites general manager Hugh MacIntosh said the hotel changed its cleaning regimen to comply with the ordinance. "We reduced the rooms cleaned per day from seventeen to 10.5, which is within the five-thousand-square-foot limit," he said. EBASE organizers say the correct number of rooms should be eight or nine. Still, there was no question that Measure C had transformed the housekeepers' jobs.

Then, in September, the hotel began accusing longtime workers like Dominguez and Melquiades of not having valid Social Security cards.

To get a job, everyone living in the United States must complete an I-9 form, which must be accompanied by two pieces of identification, including a Social Security number. The form asks applicants to state whether they are citizens or legal residents. All the hotel's workers had long ago completed such paperwork and gone to work without objection or complaint. But on September 27, Dominguez, Melquiades, and nineteen others were given a letter by Mary Beth Smith, the hotel's director of human relations, saying they had 24 hours to provide valid Social Security numbers or they'd be fired. Smith isn't at the hotel anymore, but the chain of events her letter set in motion is far from being settled.

The Social Security Administration writes to thousands of businesses every year, listing the names of hundreds of thousands of people whose numbers don't jibe with those on file. In 2001, the agency sent out 110,000 such letters. After September 11, the number of such notices mailed increased severalfold.

There are many reasons a worker's Social Security number might not match government records. Some are undoubtedly the victims of clerical errors, since the government's database is notoriously full of errors. But other workers, including many of the millions who are in the United States without proper documentation, make the list because they used a nonexistent number, or one that belongs to another person.

In the recent raids at the Swift meatpacking plants, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement called such use identity fraud. But using someone else's Social Security number to get a job is hardly the same as using his or her credit cards to purchase expensive stereo equipment. There is no evidence to suggest that the genuine holder of a Social Security number is harmed when someone else uses that number on the job. After all, an employer will be depositing extra money into that person's account, and the worker using the incorrect number will never be able to collect the benefits those earnings will accrue.

The Bush administration has been using these letters to pressure employers to fire workers they suspect of lacking visas, and hopes to make such terminations mandatory. Today, however, there is no such requirement. In the late 1990s, protests by labor and immigrant-rights activists forced the Social Security Administration to include a crucial paragraph in the no-match letters, cautioning employers not to construe a discrepancy in numbers as evidence of lack of immigration status. Employers are asked only to advise workers they've received such a notice.

After all, the Social Security card is not a national identification card. In the United States, unlike other countries, there is no national ID card, nor any obligation requiring residents to possess one. In fact, every time a bill to create a national ID has been proposed in Congress, it has failed.

"The law requires that, for an individual to work, they have to complete the I-9," Woodfin's MacIntosh said. "That requires the workers to provide a valid Social Security number. We've simply asked them to get a document from SSA saying they've completed the I-9 requirements."

But once an employer accepts an I-9 form and an employee goes to work, the employer can't later ask the worker to reverify that information. Such reverification has been viewed by the Department of Justice as discrimination, which is prohibited by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. EBASE has not challenged the firings on this basis. But Marielena Hincapie, staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Project, said reverification as a result of a no-match check also is a violation of section 274-B of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Congress expressly included this prohibition out of concern that reverification would lead to discriminatory worker dismissals.

Labor advocates see another motivation at work. In the legal proceedings surrounding the firings, Woodfin Suites revealed that it had received a letter about its workers' Social Security numbers in May 2006. But managers took no action until September, after employees had complained to the city council that the hotel wasn't abiding by Measure C. Woodfin gave a series of deadlines to the workers, which it extended under community pressure. Finally, it lowered the boom on December 15.

Dominguez believes she knows why she and her co-workers were dismissed: "The reason the hotel was saying this was because we were demanding our rights."


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