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Another 240 Twin Cities janitorial workers to lose jobs after ICE audit

ST. PAUL

Harvard Maintenance is the latest employer in the Twin Cities to fire workers amid scrutiny from immigration officials.

The janitorial service is firing 240 undocumented workers who clean office buildings in the Twin Cities -- about half its local work force -- after Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a workplace audit, said Service Employees International Union Local 26, the union that represents the workers.

The government audit found many of the company's workers lacked the documentation needed to work legally in the U.S.

The dismissals at Harvard, expected to take place in the next week or so, come not long after fast-food chain Chipotle fired 450 of its Minnesota workers whose documents were questioned in another workplace investigation. In November 2009, another janitorial company, ABM, fired 1,200 undocumented workers after a federal government audit.

Harvard, a national janitorial company with corporate headquarters in New York, did not return a call seeking comment. ICE declined to answer questions.

Javier Morillo, president of SEIU Local 26, which represents some 5,000 Twin Cities janitors and window cleaners, said in a statement: "Our community is traumatized.

"Almost systematically, the federal government has become an employment agency for the worst employers, pushing hardworking people into the underground economy where they face exploitation by bad-actor corporations."

DeAnne Hilgers, an employment attorney who helps employers prepare for workplace audits, said she first noticed a pickup in federal audits in July 2009.

"The law hasn't changed, really," she said. "It's the enforcement that is changing."

Immigration officials conducted 2,200 audits nationally in fiscal 2010, generating $6.9 million in fines, up from 1,400 audits and about $1 million in fines the previous year.

Employers are caught in the middle.

"If we put the onus on the employers to have to verify that every document is legitimate, they're not going to be able to conduct their business because they are going to have to be chasing down these documents," Hilgers said. "That's why the system doesn't work as intended, and employers are losing good workers."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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