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E-verify requirement, with carve-out for agriculture community, moves ahead in Senate

Sponsors said the bill will continue to evolve.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a version of E-verify requirements on Florida employers, but legislation left the committee with very different language.

Sen. Tom Lee came in with a bill (SB 664) that would put requirements on private employers to verify employment eligibility using a federal database.

But replacement language offered by Sen. David Simmons, the Committee’s chair, would carve out certain employers, notably those in agriculture. It also would allow the Department of Economic Opportunity to establish an “equivalent electronic employment verification system” as an alternative to E-verify.

Lee and Simmons said they have been working on with business leaders around the country on new language.

“We’re just asking employers to do due diligence and to follow the law,” Lee said.

Business leaders categorized the changes to requirements as a positive start in improving the legislation.

Larry Hunter, lobbyist for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, thanked Simmons for introducing the language. He said the industry employs 100,000 workers who would be harmed by E-verify legislation.

“We will continue to work with you get a language that protects legal workers in Florida,” he said.

Passing some kind of E-verify requirement has been a priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis this session, but has been met with skepticism in the House and Senate.

Simmons said he hopes to get language together that doesn’t put too great an onus on employers, particularly small businesses. He noted that even though undocumented workers in the U.S. are subject to just a civil penalty, employers keeping them on payroll could face criminal punishment under some proposed requirements.

“We do not want to put a burden on small businesses with something that is an obligation with the federal government,” Simmons said.

Along that line, the legislation would phase in requirements, putting compliance requirements on larger companies first. Businesses employing 500 employees or more would need to use a verification system starting on Jan. 1, 2021. Those with 250 to 500 workers could wait until July. Those with less than 150 could wait until the start of 2022.

Meanwhile, businesses with 10 or fewer employees would only have to start verification if the federal government authorized Florida to issue state work permits to qualified undocumented individuals.

As for enforcement, those companies required to use a system would be fined $500 for failing to do so. Refusal to comply after that could result in the state revoking a business license.

The Judiciary heard but ultimately rejected a series of amendments to the bill that would have granted exemptions to a number of other industries besides agriculture, including to hospitality and restaurant owners.

Much of the objection over required use of the E-verify database stemmed from fears the system lacks accuracy.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, the source of most of those proposed changes, said he’s seen evidence as many as 15 percent of checks on employment status produce wrong results. He especially feared individuals who legally can work in the United States getting flagged erroneously and being subjected to penalties.

“This bill does not change federal law or state law,” Rodrigues said. “It mandates a federal program, again outside of agricultural industry but everywhere else. E-verify is not a solution.”

Ultimately, the bill made it through the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

Lee’s bill is one of two filed addressing E-verify requirements. Another bill filed by Sen. Joe Gruters (SB 1822) has yet to be heard by the Judiciary Committee.

The topic has drawn concern both from immigrant advocates and business leaders.

FWD.us released a study Tuesday saying an E-verify requirement could cost Florida 253,000 jobs. Meanwhile, the American Business Immigration Coalition sent a letter of objection saying the bill unfairly targeted immigrant workers.

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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