February 29, 2024

Bucks Blog: Safeguarding Social Security Checks as They Go Electronic

Ida May Fuller, the first Social Security beneficiary to receive a recurring monthly payment (beginning Jan. 31, 1940).Social Security AdministrationIda May Fuller, the first Social Security beneficiary to receive a recurring monthly payment (beginning Jan. 31, 1940).

Consumer groups — along with paper-producing interests – -are urging the federal government to improve safeguards for Social Security recipients, as the government phases out paper checks for beneficiaries in favor of electronic deposits.

Beginning in March, all Social Security checks will be deposited electronically unless recipients apply for and receive a waiver to keep getting payments via paper checks.

Recipients must receive the payments by direct deposit to a bank account, or to a debit card, including the government’s DirectExpress card. The debit cards allow beneficiaries to make retail purchases with the card or withdraw the funds from automatic teller machines. If current recipients don’t choose a deposit option by March 1, they’ll automatically be sent a DirectExpress card to avoid any delay in receipt of benefits, the Social Security Administration says.

The move is part of an continuing effort by the federal government to reduce paper and cut costs by going electronic for all sorts of things, including savings bonds, unemployment benefits and Social Security benefit statements. Already, 94 percent of beneficiaries receive payments electronically, according to the Office of Inspector General for the Social Security Administration.

But in testimony before a congressional committee this month, consumer advocates urged the government to make sure that safeguards are in place to prevent fraud, like re-directing recipients’ electronic payments, and that the waiver process for recipients who do not want electronic deposits is clear and straightforward.

Beneficiaries aged 92 and older are exempt from the electronic deposit requirement, and others who still want to get paper checks can apply for a waiver. But according to testimony from the National Consumer Law Center, the waiver process is so difficult that few waivers actually have been granted. The group urges the government to liberalize the waiver process, so people who are more comfortable getting paper checks may continue to do so.

While the vast majority of recipients already have voluntarily switched to electronic deposit, “the
population that has resisted doing so to date generally has a good reason,” according to testimony from Margot Freeman Saunders, a lawyer with the consumer law center. They include people who don’t have a bank account; those who don’t understand or feel comfortable with direct deposit; and people who already have workable and affordable methods of receiving their benefits.

Of the over 72,000 calls received by Treasury between May 1, 2011 and July 30, 2012 regarding a waiver, only about 14,000 were even sent a waiver packet with instructions, she said. Then, only 281 notarized responses were received back by Treasury. Those numbers, Ms. Freeman Saunders said, are a “clear illustration” that the need for the waiver far exceeds the number of people actually obtaining one.

Fraud is another concern. The Inspector General of the Social Security Administration said in testimony to Congress this month that it has received more than 19,000 reports about questionable or unauthorized changes to recipients’ direct-deposit information, apparently as part of efforts to illegally re-direct monthly payments. “These reports have involved either an unauthorized change to direct deposit information, or a suspected attempt to make such a change,” according to testimony by Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr., the inspector general for the SSA.

The Inspector General has recommended Social Security make changes to prevent fraudulent redirection of deposits, like developing an automatic notification system to alert recipients of any changes to their deposit information.

On a less dramatic level, consumer groups caution that debit cards may pose challenges for some senior citizens, who may not be used to using PINs and many not know how to properly safeguard them. The cards also carry fees that seniors may be unaccustomed to paying. Fees under DirectExpress are relatively limited; the card offers one free A.T.M. withdrawal after the funds are deposited, and subsequent withdrawals carry a 90-cent fee. Fees also apply for receiving a monthly paper statement (75 cents) and for transferring funds to a personal bank account ($1.50).

A new advocacy group, Consumers for Paper Options, argues that the move will present a hardship for many elderly check recipients. The group has asked the government to retain paper checks as the default option, with electronic delivery available if requested by recipients.

“We think people ought to have a choice for important financial information,” said John Runyan, executive director of Consumers for Paper Options. He said the non-profit is primarily backed by “paper-based communication interests,” like the Envelope Manufacturers Association, the American Forest Paper Association and various paper companies.

Do you or your relatives receive a paper Social Security check? Are you concerned about the move to electronic payments?

Article source: http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/24/safeguarding-social-security-checks-as-they-go-electronic/?partner=rss&emc=rss

Surviving an Immigration Audit

L. E. Cook was one of 1,444 businesses to receive an introduction to ICE’s stepped-up worksite enforcement program in 2009 — almost three times the number audited in 2008. Last year, 2,196 businesses were audited. An ICE representative said the agency did not categorize audits by business type and that the law applied across industries.

“Any company is at risk at any given time,” said Leon Versfeld, an immigration lawyer in Kansas City, Mo. In one prominent case, American Apparel, the clothing manufacturer, was forced to terminate 1,800 undocumented workers after a 2009 audit. Chipotle Mexican Grill, the restaurant chain, has let go hundreds of workers since its audit began last year.

While the administration of George W. Bush focused on headline-making raids that resulted in arrests of immigrant workers, the Obama administration has gone after employers with ICE’s I-9 audits on the theory that employers who hire unauthorized workers create the demand that drives most illegal immigration.

In addition, the Social Security Administration has resumed sending “no-match” letters after a three-year hiatus. The letters, which alert employers that information on an employee’s W-2 form does not match information on file with the Social Security Administration, had been halted in 2007. The main purpose is ostensibly to ensure that employee Social Security accounts are credited properly, but the letters can also be used by ICE to show that an employer had reason to believe an employee might not have documentation.

“The master narrative of immigration reform is being crafted around the notion of unscrupulous employers seeking cheap labor,” said Craig Regelbrugge, a lawyer and lobbyist with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

Unscrupulous employers exist, Mr. Regelbrugge said, but more often he sees business owners who are just trying to follow the law. When a new hire produces seemingly legitimate forms of documentation required by the I-9 form, the employer must accept them. (To refuse could expose the owner to charges of employment discrimination.) “The employer is not required to be a forensics expert,” said Monte Lake, an immigration lawyer in Washington.

The upshot of the more aggressive enforcement is that even employers who have followed the rules can be devastated by an audit that compels them to fire valuable, long-time employees.

The I-9 audit of Mr. Cox’s nursery revealed that 26 of his 99 employees were not authorized to work in the United States. Because ICE determined he had acted reasonably in hiring them, Mr. Cox was not fined or held criminally liable. But after confirming that the 26 employees could not produce authentic documents, he was forced to fire them. All had been with him for five to 10 years, and he lost half of his budding crew, a highly specialized team that grafts trees. “Telling them was probably the worst day of my life,” he said. “I don’t just sit at a desk here, I’m actually out in the field harvesting with them.”

Mr. Cox said he was lucky the audit hit midrecession, after he had already reduced his work force and inventory. Still, he estimates that his 2009 expenses climbed 10 percent as a result of the terminations. And, despite California’s high unemployment rate, finding replacement employees has proved challenging. “I’ve gone through more workers this year than I have in the past 10 years combined,” Mr. Cox said.

While most such workers earn the $8-an-hour minimum wage in California, Mr. Cox said he generally paid $8.90 an hour for a 50-hour week. The terminated budding crew workers made $10 an hour. Compensation includes state-mandated overtime of time and a half, health insurance and two weeks’ paid vacation. “If I raised the wage,” he said, “I’d have to shut my doors.”

Meanwhile, after an audit, ICE does not round up the affected workers for deportation. That meant Mr. Cox’s former workers were free to seek employment elsewhere — including with his competitors. Mr. Cox said that he knew through his remaining workers that the terminated employees were all working in the area.

After the audit, Mr. Cox started using E-Verify, a federal program that lets employers confirm the authenticity of a job applicant’s Social Security and green card numbers electronically. Although the program’s use is mandatory in some states, its reliability has been debated, and it remains voluntary in California. A bill in Congress that would require all American employers to use the program could go to a vote this month.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ca7527058849a9a87cc2f86ea301ff93