Tom Lee drops small business exemption from E-Verify proposal

tom lee
A change in language brings the bill closer to the House version.

Changes introduced on the Senate floor expand the number of businesses that may be subject to employment verification requirements.

Sen. Tom Lee on Friday filed a substantial amendment to his bill (SB 664) regarding mandatory use of the E-Verify system. Senators approved that amendment on the first reading of the bill.

The Thonotosassa Republican’s bill previously exempted businesses with fewer than 50 employees from the requirement.

But an amendment approved Friday drops that exemption and puts new regulations on all private and public sector employees in Florida.

But like the House version (HB 1265), the legislation allows for employers to rely on the paper-based I-9 process instead of using the federal E-Verify database.

“It’s slightly less onerous on business, and a move in the right direction of people who might have concerns,” Lee said.

A requirement to keep records for employees will make sure the legislation has meaning. At the same time, Lee said he wanted to make sure businesses aren’t held responsible for verifying documentation from workers themselves and being held accountable if it doesn’t check out.

“If a birth certificate is not written in crayon, and looks like a birth certificate, don’t punish (employers) for making a good faith effort to follow the law,” he said.

Rep. Cord Byrd, the House sponsor, has said that should alleviate costs associated with electronic employment verification.

In the past, Lee has dismissed that alternative as a loophole, and the chance for employers to use another independent system as akin to using “psychics and palm readers.”

But as he worked with House members on getting the bills closer together, he said it became clear there would need to be some kind of loophole included in a final bill.

“But we beefed up enforcement,” he said, noting the change adopts House language letting law enforcement entities also press employers on complying with the law.

Lee still believes the E-Verify system is reliable and useful, and that employers using the system do not generally endorse it.

The legislation also allows the Department of Economic Opportunity to approve a system equivalent to E-Verify.

The most controversial portion of the Senate bill, though, remains. That is a provision allowing complaints to DEO to investigate employers and requirements for the DEO in the event a worker fails verification to be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An employer knowingly keeping undocumented workers ineligible to hold a job in the U.S. risks the DEO stripping their business license, under the bill.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodrigrez, a Miami Democrat, expressed concerns individuals may vindictively report businesses to the DEO and compel the agency to investigate.

“Does the DEO have the discretion to not call ICE?” Rodriguez said.

Lee said rule-making authority will be developed by the DEO itself, and suggested in practical terms the department will need to use some latitude in enforcement. The bill sponsor said he’s also not certain what type of relationship will be required from the federal agency’s perspective.

“I don’t know a lot about federal immigration law,” Lee said. “I admit that.”

The proposal has proven to be one of the more controversial pieces of legislation debated this Session, not just with liberal immigrant advocacy groups but with many employers.

Some of that surfaced as the legislation hit the Senate floor for the first time.

Sen. George Gainer, a Panama City Republican, sought assurance that an agriculture employer who has kept an employee on payroll for the past 25 years and “knows them to be good,” would not now have to verify their work eligibility.

Lee said his bill won’t be retroactive, and applies only to new hires.

House and Senate leaders have been involved in high-level negotiations over the substance of the bill, with Gov. Ron DeSantis stressing he wants strong requirements on any legislation that lands on his desk.

DeSantis’ office had no comment at this time on the changes introduced on Friday.

Lee said it’s important to him the House and Senate get legislation aligned now. Otherwise, negotiations between the chambers could cripple the Legislature during the final week of Session. He’d like to get a bill approved in one pass rather than sending versions back and forth in messages.

Jacob Ogles

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 [email protected]


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