When it comes to I-9 forms (you know, the federally required employment eligibility verification forms required whenever you hire someone) a few lucky employers will deal with common circumstances 99% of the time and won't be overly fazed by compliance issues if they are meticulous and well-educated on the law.

But there are a surprising number of nuances that even experienced employers may not be aware of.

For superb guidance, the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides an easy to read, 69-page brochure.

Don't be put off by the number of pages. This color brochure, replete with photos, is an excellent reference guide, addressing just about anything you might encounter, including re-hires and the hiring of minors, individuals with disabilities, lawful permanent residents and refugees. The format is well laid out, uses clear language, and provides samples and Q&As.

All employers, but especially those new to human resources, small businesses just starting out, and employers with more unusual hiring and documentation situations, are encouraged to review it thoroughly. Because of its friendly format, it's well worth the read.

We don't want to replicate such comprehensive USCIS guidance here; but the following are a few basic tips to help you avoid compliance trouble:

  • I-9 forms must be completed for all new employees, hired after November 6, 1986, even if just for one day of work. The form is never to be completed by applicants, only new hires or those who've received an offer of employment. Also, don't use the form with bona fide independent contractors.
  • As soon as a candidate accepts your offer of employment, let him or her know the I-9 form is a requirement of employment. Send the form with the list of acceptable documents in advance if there's time. The law says the form needs to be completed within three days of hire but get it done on the new employee's first day. The employee may fill out Section 1 at any time after they receive an offer of employment until their first day of work.
  • Remind new hires, through email or by phone, a day or two before their start date to bring their ID-one from List A will suffice OR they may bring one from List B and one from List C.
  • Acceptable documents must be original, not copies. If the employee has lost a document, such as an original Social Security card, you may accept as documentation a receipt of their application for a one. The receipt is good for just 90 days; after that the person has to show you the newly issued document.
  • Providing a Social Security number on Form I-9 is voluntary for all employees unless you are an employer participating in the USCIS E-Verify program, which requires an employee's Social Security number for employment eligibility verification.
  • According to the law, you don't have to photocopy the documents the person provides but it's a good idea and may demonstrate your good faith effort to comply. What you do for one employee, however, you must do for all. Always apply your policies and practices across the board to avoid any appearance of discrimination. Also, if you retain photocopies, keep them in the employee's file or with their I-9 form.
  • Keep I-9s separate from the employee's personnel file. I-9s can be retained either on paper, microform, microfiche or electronically. See pages 23-25 of the USCIS brochure for the specifics of these various retention formats.
  • If you rehire someone within three years of the date the employee's original verification, the original I-9 may be used by completing Section 3. Otherwise be sure to use a new form.
  • You must retain an employee's completed I-9 for as long as the individual works for you. Once s(he) terminates, the form is to be kept for either three years after the date of hire, or for one year after the date employment is terminated, whichever is later. It's a good idea to weed out I-9s you are no longer required to retain. As long as you remain methodical and meticulous about destroying only those no longer needed, your risk exposure will be reduced in the event of an audit. Fewer forms, fewer mistakes.

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