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It's more important than ever to make sure your employees are who they say they are and they're legally eligible to work in this country.

Why? The ongoing battle against terrorism has led immigration and work-visa policies to be scrutinized like never before. That includes new mandates for tougher enforcement and immigration reforms.

Also, the new Homeland Security Act of 2002 promises to alter the immigration landscape as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) moves under the jurisdiction of the new Department of Homeland Security.

The simple, yet complex I-9

The bureaucratic shuffling won't change one thing: Employers must still verify that their employees are authorized to work in the United States. The process requires all employers, regardless of size, to complete an Employment Eligibility Verification form, or I-9, for each new hire. New employees have three days to produce original documents proving their identity and eligibility to work.

I-9 mistakes can be costly: Both INS and the Labor Department audit companies to check I-9 compliance. Penalties for poor documentation and recordkeeping range from $100 to $1,000 per worker. If you knowingly hire an unauthorized alien, you can be fined up to $10,000 per worker.

10 ways to avoid liability

Sidestep potential legal troubles by following these I-9 do's and don'ts:

1. Do require all new hires to complete and sign Section 1 on their first day of work.

2. Don't ask an applicant to complete an I-9 prior to extending a job offer. Information on the I-9 could be used as a weapon in a discrimination lawsuit if the applicant is not hired.

3. Do review the employee's documents to make sure they are on the Form I-9's list of acceptable documents and to make sure they appear genuine.

4. Don't ask the employee for any particular documents or more documents than required by the I-9. The employee chooses the documents, not you.

5. Do establish a consistent procedure for completing I-9s and educate your hiring managers.

6. Don't consider the expiration date of I-9 documentation when making hiring, promotion or firing decisions.

7. Do make and retain copies of

all I-9 documentation employees provide. These documents will come in handy in the event of an audit.

8. Don't forget to keep a tickler file to follow up on expiring documents. Notify employees of the need to re-verify documentation 90 days before the current documents expire.

9. Do keep the Form I-9 and copies of an employee's documents for three years after the date of hire or one year after termination, whichever comes later.

10. Don't put the Form I-9 in an employee's personnel file. To protect your company against discrimination claims, keep the I-9 and supporting documentation in a separate file.

Jonathan Landesman practices labor and employment law at the Philadelphia firm of Cohen, Seglias, Pallas, Greenhall & Furman P.C. and is a YATL adviser.

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