By  on May 17, 2007

WASHINGTON — Executives from Federated Department Stores Inc., Gap Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Neiman Marcus fanned out across Capitol Hill Wednesday to lobby on pending legislation, including a mandatory employer verification system for immigration status and tax breaks for small businesses linked to a minimum wage increase.

More than 150 government affairs officials from major retailers, independent specialty store owners and representatives of state retail associations met here for the National Retail Federation's annual Washington Leadership Conference Monday through Wednesday.

Among the priorities for retailers who conferred with some 70 lawmakers was a legislative proposal to make an employer verification system for illegal immigrants mandatory in a bill that is being debated in Congress.

The Department of Homeland Security has a voluntary basic pilot verification program in place, but retailers said it is inadequately funded and often produces false negatives that would make it difficult to ramp up as a mandatory program covering millions of workers. The Senate could take up an immigration bill next week that would make the electronic verification program mandatory and applicable to all employees.

"We're very concerned about the [employer verification] provision, particularly the retroactive provision," which would force retailers to check the legal status of every employee through an electronic system, said Steve Pfister, the NRF's senior vice president of government relations. "New employee verification is one thing, but when you are talking about retailers with a workforce of 20 to 22 million people, retroactively verifying every employee with onerous penalties attached, we don't think that's the way to go."

Retailers appear to have the backing of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who gave a speech to the NRF group Tuesday and is a lead Bush administration negotiator with Congress on the immigration bill.

"We are trying to find a balance," Gutierrez said after the speech. "We need something workable, something that is reliable, something that is technologically proven and something that doesn't put employers or workers at a disadvantage or in an unfair position."

Gutierrez said employers and the business community should not be expected to serve as the "immigration police." Retailers also expressed concern that Congress could impose user fees on employers and lower the liability standard under which employers could be penalized for hiring illegal immigrants.Another key issue is House-passed legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize workers. The bill would mandate the recognition of a union if a majority of employees sign authorization cards, known as a "card check" system, without giving employers the option of a closed-ballot election. It would also strengthen the penalties for employers who try to strong-arm workers seeking to organize by imposing civil fines of as much as $20,000 per violation. President Bush has vowed to veto it.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), who briefed the NRF group, said the card-check bill "might come up [in the Senate] in June, but there are not 60 votes" [which the Democrats need to avoid a Republican filibuster] "so it isn't going to go anywhere this year."

Retailers also planned to discuss the minimum wage and tax-incentive package tied to a controversial war funding bill because the tax breaks for small businesses have been significantly scaled back in a House-passed bill. The Senate version is in flux.

Trade was another high priority for retailers, who are focusing on moves such as imposing countervailing duties on China and the potential for further quotas on Chinese apparel and textile imports, as well as measures like an antidumping monitoring program for apparel and textile imports from Vietnam.

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