What You Must Know About Social Security Mismatch and Immigration Obligations

Published on: 16:54PM Jan 21, 2011

Establishing procedures to address mismatches consistently must be a part of every employer’s immigration compliance strategy.

Anthony Raimondo 2010 06 photoBy Anthony P. Raimondo, attorney
Notification that an employee’s name and Social Security Number (SSN) do not match can come in many forms, including a “no match” letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA), a garnishment, or even a complaint from a third party who claims their SSN has been stolen. 
Employers still must be aware of their legal obligations when they receive notice that an employee may be using a SSN that is not his or her own.
Employers may not hire or employ individuals who they know are not authorized to work in the United States. “Knowing” includes both actual knowledge and “constructive knowledge,” which exists when an employer should know that the employee lacks legal status.
A mismatch notification alone is not a basis for constructive knowledge because there are many reasons for a mismatch that have nothing to do with immigration status. For example, a woman who fails to legally change her last name after marriage, but starts using her husband’s name could trigger a mismatch. Employees may use false SSNs to avoid debts, even if they have legal status in the United States. 
In the case of a garnishment notice or a complaint from a third party, the employer has no way of knowing whether or not the disputed SSN belongs to the employee or someone else. 
Employers cannot ignore SSN mismatches. First, employers are obligated by tax law to use “due diligence” to provide correct payroll tax information to the government. Ignoring a mismatch could result in IRS fines. Second, employers cannot turn a blind eye to the possible immigration implications of the mismatch. While the mismatch itself is not a basis to terminate, information discovered when following up could lead to an obligation to re-verify an I-9 or even terminate the employment.
Regardless of how the mismatch came to light, the employer should follow the procedure below. 
1.                   Verify records. Compare the employee’s SSN with his or her records. If the records do not match the W-4 form, then correct the W-4 form and report the correction to the SSA. Maintain copies of correspondence submitting corrected information to the SSA.
2.                   Notify the employee of the discrepancy. If the business has been using the number provided by the employee, then inform the employee that there is a problem with the SSN and that he or she must resolve it with the SSA. Tell the employee to report the correct information once it has been resolved. Do not give the employee a deadline to report the information unless the policy is to discharge employees who fail to provide corrected information. If a deadline is imposed, it must allow a reasonable amount of time to resolve the problem.
3.                   Confirm instructions in writing. Write a letter directing the employee to resolve the issue with the SSA and asking the employee to provide updated information, and include it with the employee’s pay check. The employer must continue to pay payroll taxes, regardless of any mismatch.
If the employee returns with new information, the employer should correct its records and notify the SSA of the correction. If the employer does not receive corrected information by the end of the tax year, send a letter to the employee asking them to complete a new W-4 with their corrected SSN. Under IRS policy, once an employer has requested the update in two successive tax years, it does not need to ask again. As a matter of policy, having employees submit a new W-4 on an annual basis will serve as an annual solicitation for the correct SSN.
If the employee does not return with corrected information, do not automatically fire the employee or re-verify their I-9 unless the employee used the questionable SSN on the I-9. In that case, re-verify but do not accept any document with the questionable SSN unless and until the mismatch is resolved.
4.                   Establish company policy and apply it consistently. The employer must establish and implement a policy and procedure for responding to mismatch letters and to maintain records of responses to mismatch letters. The policy must be applied consistently to all employees in order to avoid claims of discrimination.
5.                   Do not terminate. Employers should never assume an employee with a reported mismatch is an undocumented alien, and should never fire an employee solely because of a mismatch letter. But employers cannot ignore information they receive when following up on mismatches.
Any employee that admits to being undocumented must be terminated immediately. If the employee comes up with an entirely new identity, then the employer must demand an explanation. If the explanation is reasonable (such as a legal name change), then the employer can accept it and should re-verify the I-9.
If an employee repeatedly fails to correct a mismatch, company policy will control. If the employer has a policy of terminating for failure to provide accurate information, then the employee should be terminated for failure to provide accurate information on hire. But such a policy must be enforced consistently. Otherwise, the employer can continue to employ the individual, but must be aware that it may not be able to terminate others who provide inaccurate personal data.
Establishing procedures to address mismatches consistently must be a part of every employer’s immigration compliance strategy.
Based in Fresno, Calif., Anthony Raimondo is a labor attorney specializing in agricultural labor issues, primarily in the dairy industry. He counsels farmers on legal compliance and labor relations strategies and defends them before courts and administrative agencies. He has run counter-organizing campaigns against the country's most aggressive agricultural unions and has negotiated favorable contracts for unionized employers. He is also the primary labor resource for Western United Dairymen. Contact him at (559) 433-1300 or [email protected].