Surviving a Surprise Immigration Audit

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

Kreider Farms Provides Insight in Crisis Management

LANCASTER, Pa. — Kreider Farms of Manheim, Pa., received a one-two punch last year when a succession of crises shook its operations within a matter of months, each garnering national media attention.

The first hit in January when its poultry and dairy managers discovered they would lose nearly a third of the company’s workforce after a immigration audit of its I-9 employee forms.

This likely opened the door for a second crisis, the release of an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States, or HSUS, alleging animal abuse.

Terri Turner, Kreider Farms’ human resources manager, described the incidents and the lessons the company took from them during a presentation at last week’s Pennsylvania Dairy Summit at the Lancaster Host Resort in Lancaster.

“It is my belief, even though this was a crisis, it gave our company the chance to prove ourselves,” she said.

Kreider Farms employs 325 workers for its 2,500-acre farming operation, which includes more than 6 million egg-laying hens and 1,500 dairy cows.

Turner said that as the crises developed, the company’s marketing team took a proactive approach by selecting a point person to handle each issue.

“The media is going to come and do the story, whether you cooperate or not,” she said.

Turner was the point person for the immigration issue and Kreider’s marketing director, Dave Andrews, handled the HSUS video blowup.

“We were prepared. Our customers went to bat for us as soon as (the video) came out,” she said.

The company quickly obtained inspections and documentation from state agencies stating that there was no evidence of abuse on the farm. Customers were invited to tour the operation, and the video story quickly died.

The difficulties began in late 2011 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contacted Kreider Farms, saying it was up for an I-9 audit.

The I-9 form, or Employment Eligibility Verification Form, is used to verify an employee’s identity and establish eligibility for employment in the U.S.

In January 2012, Turner received notice from Homeland Security that more than 100 employees had questionable documentation.

“We had many divisions that lost their whole employee base, minus the manager,” she said. “We were facing a crisis with the fact we have live animals and we were losing our experienced staff to deal with those animals.”

After recovering from the initial shock, Turner said, she worked with the rest of the management team to develop a plan to move forward.

“One of the key things is the communication. I feel strongly about being proactive and not keeping people in the dark,” she said.

Within a few days, a series of meetings were held in quick succession at Kreider’s multiple farms to ensure the message the employees were getting was from management, not other employees.

If there was one benefit from the I-9 crisis, Turner said, it was in suddenly having a list of employees who needed assistance to correct their paperwork.

Managers worked seven days a week for months until the April deadline to correct as many of the paperwork shortcomings as they could.

However, in the end, Turner had the difficult job of letting 109 workers go, including about 40 longtime employees, something that she said was very heartbreaking to do.

“It is still very emotional for me to talk about some of them. This was saying goodbye to people that were family,” Turner said. “We tried everything to get them legal assistance and tried everything to keep them.”

In April, after the results of the audit were finalized, not only did the Department of Homeland Security determine that no fine was warranted, it also issued Kreider Farms a letter of commendation for its paperwork.

Only about 15 percent of employers receive a commendation after an I-9 audit, Turner said.

She credits communication between managers and Homeland Security as well as a 2009 internal personnel file audit for the successful outcome.

Turner said she had developed a separate filing system for the I-9 forms, independent of the personnel files. If the I-9 files are with the personnel files, the entire collection will be audited, she said.

When incorrect I-9 forms were uncovered during the 2009 internal audit, Turner worked to correct the forms, initialing the changes. She also established a system to keep the forms up to date.

As part of the I-9 process, employees must show proof of identity and worker eligibility. A few examples are an unexpired temporary resident card, unexpired employment authorization card, Social Security card or driver’s license.

Turner said that as part of the verification process, she copied employee documents, filing them with the I-9 forms.

Although some attorneys advise their clients not to do this, Turner said, it showed that Kreider’s had credible documentation from its employees.

“The main reason we did not get fined was because we had copies of this documentation,” she said. “When you lose 109 employees, I have a hard time believing that the DHS would have believed that we saw documentation that was valid” without those copies.

Turner said she maintained a cooperative attitude when working with the Homeland Security officer.

“I made sure he sensed our willingness to cooperate to the fullest. I also made sure he understood my concern of that we have live animals that we need cared for,” she said. “And I asked a lot of questions. He was willing to give me lots of information.”

When Krieder’s had to release its employees in April, its managers knew they could become a target for animal-rights activists because they were having to scramble to fill a large portion of their workforce in a short period of time, hiring 400 people in the expectation of high turnover.

“We were not surprised that someone would infiltrate our farm,” Turner said. “We tried to take precautions, but we were not surprised.”

One of those new employees took undercover video in one of company’s old chicken houses, where not many chickens were housed, to claim animal abuse on the farm, she said. HSUS released the video on April 10.

Looking back, Turner said, there were warning signs. The employee was bothered by dust and was “very different from many of our other employees” in dress and attitude.

His work was also substandard, she said. He was given two warnings and under normal circumstances would have been fired.

If there are any lessons in Kreider Farms’ experience for other farmers, she said, it is to develop hiring, filing and paperwork retention systems.

Turner said she recognized that other farms might not have human resources departments to handle their employee files, but no matter what, they still have to have a system in place.

Kreider’s has also changed some of its hiring practices since the audit and video, she said.

First, the company now uses the E-Verify system offered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division of the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition to registering with the government’s electronic verification system, Kreider Farms also now does background checks on all applicants before they are hired. If they do not pass the background check, which also flags stolen identification, they are not hired, Turner said.

Since the company implemented both E-Verify and background checks, she said, people who cannot clear E-Verify have stopped applying for work.

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