AIKEN -- Relying on human resources departments or a similar advisory service has become key to helping Aiken businesses navigate South Carolina's Illegal Immigration Reform Act.
The second round of a 2008 state law that went into effect July 1 requires all businesses to check new hires' legal status and fire any workers in the county illegally. The law previously applied only to companies with more than 100 employees.
Heath Taylor, of the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, said many of its small-business members began getting paperwork in order last year after the chamber held a seminar addressing the change in legislation.
Smaller shops without full-time human resources departments sought assistance in compliance checks from outside sources.
"I don't think this will be a big issue for the companies around here because many of them were already aware of the changes," Taylor said.
Employers are required to verify workers' legal status through a federal database called E-verify or hire only employees who have a valid South Carolina driver's license or approved identification from 26 other states with requirements as strict at South Carolina's.
Graves Construction Services Inc., in Jackson, began the shift to an E-verify system just after Sept. 11, 2001, to meet compliance with several government contracts, said Randy Stover, its human resources director. Stover said although the company has maintained the practice for years, the change still strained his employees.
"In a construction environment, most people just want to go to work and don't really concentrate on the other issues," he said. "They (employees) weren't used to as many background checks and answering so many personal questions."
Companies such as Graves, however, will be the target of auditors. The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation will focus on businesses that traditionally employ illegal workers, including construction, landscaping, hotels and restaurants, spokesman Jim Knight said earlier this year.
The office of Immigrant Worker Compliance about doubled its number of investigators to 23 to check the additional 110,000 small businesses this fall.
Many of the offenses from large companies last year were centralized to coastal and tourist locations, according to Labor, Licensing and Regulation data.
In the past year, 175 of 1,850 businesses violated state law. Most violations involved failure to verify workers within five days of hiring. A coastal landscaping company was the only one fined, after being cited twice. Auditors found 11 illegal employees, and the company was fined $11,500 and had to shut down for 10 days.
The only offense in Aiken County since 2008 involved ASCO Valve Manufacturing Inc., which was penalized $1,700 in February for not using E-verify to test new employees' status. The penalty was waived because it was a first-time violation.
Employers have 72 hours to comply or face penalties, including having a business license revoked and fines up to $1,000 per violation for companies found with illegal workers.
Taylor said Aiken's record for compliance indicates small companies will probably fall into line with the next round of changes.
Stewart Builders of Aiken hasn't had to do any extra compliance work yet, said Wendy Ray. The company employs only 10 people and hasn't had any new hires since last week, Ray said.
"I haven't had to do anything yet that we don't already do," said Ray. "But it needs to be done, and we don't need to hire anyone that isn't in this country legally."
It's estimated that 40,000 to 100,000 illegal immigrants live in South Carolina, according to a 2008 Pew Hispanic Center study.