How the Trump Administration Is Using Ineffective No-Match Letters in a Way That Hurts Seniors, Workers, and Employers
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Emily Tulli
OCTOBER 31, 2019
An SSA no-match occurs when the names or Social Security numbers (SSNs) listed on an employer’s W-2 form don’t match SSA’s records. Although these letters are often generated for innocuous reasons — an error in the spelling of an employee’s name, an unreported name change following a marriage or divorce, or an incomplete or missing name or SSN on a W-2 — the Trump administration has reinstituted the practice of sending no-match letters as a backdoor form of immigration enforcement. In fact, SSA resources are being diverted from SSA’s core constituency, elderly and disabled people, to target workers for more immigrant enforcement.
The no-match letter’s original, actual purpose was and still could be valuable — to notify workers that they’re not receiving proper credit for their earnings and to reduce the size of the Earnings Suspense File (ESF). The ESF holds the uncredited funds from workers whose personal information filed on their W-2’s doesn’t match the information in SSA’s database. And, importantly, the letter about a particular worker makes no legal statement about the worker’s immigration status. But the Trump administration is counting on the probability that employers who receive the letters will assume that the workers named in them are unauthorized to work in U.S. — and fire them.
Everyone agrees that SSA should ensure that workers are properly credited for their earnings. This is vital to help workers retire with dignity and get disability assistance when needed. But no-match letters are an ineffective way to meet that goal. No-match letters were last sent on a large scale to employers in 2006. In a review of the practice, the SSA Office of the Inspector General found that the letters “are not effective” at reducing the size of the Earnings Suspense File. In fact, in 2005 SSA sent 127,652 letters to employers nationwide, but these resulted in only 2,915 wage items being reinstated. That’s right. No-match letters met their stated goal about 2 percent of the time.
Even if SSA wants to send no-match letters, there is a far more effective way to do it. During certain years in the past, SSA sent the letters directly to employees to alert them of a no-match. According to the inspector general, these letters were far more effective and helped resolve about 11 times more suspended wage items than letters sent to employers. But no-match letters sent to workers don’t get immigrants fired or reported, so they don’t further the administration’s agenda.
Perhaps more importantly, no-match letters sent to employers divert the resources of an already beleaguered SSA. SSA is experiencing a staff retirement wave at the same time that aging baby boomers are requiring more services from the agency. When this reality is coupled with a hiring freeze that’s been in place since 2010, SSA already has “significant management challenges” in meeting the projected growth in its workload. And SSA is spending resources to send no-match letters despite a nearly decade-long rise in customer wait times in all 10 SSA regions. More no-match letters could make a bad situation worse.
Across the country, employers are speaking out about the headaches caused by no-match letters. For some employers, no-match letters make hiring and staff retention a problem. Other employers report that the letters cause confusion and a “high level of anxiety.”
But employers are not the only ones reeling from these letters. No-match letters are a direct threat to millions of workers. U.S. citizen workers who’ve changed their names and work-authorized immigrants are particularly at risk. Given that 10 percent of the noncitizen records in SSA’s database have errors, work-authorized immigrants could be required to visit an SSA office to correct a mistake.
Worse, in the current immigration enforcement climate, many employers, mistakenly believing that a worker’s name in a no-match letter shows that the worker isn’t authorized to be employed, will fire the worker — even if the person is work-authorized. In the past, a study found that 34 percent of workers who were fired reported that their employer failed to give them an opportunity to correct their information. In Chicago, advocates and workers report that no-match letters are sowing confusion and fear in workplaces.
Ultimately, this makes workers more vulnerable to abuse. In the past, bad employers have used the letters to retaliate against immigrant workers who were organizing to protect their rights. And in 2019, NILC has fielded many requests for assistance related to mistreatment of workers based on employers’ misuse of no-match letters.
The path forward is clear. SSA no-match letters are part of yet another policy designed to target and harass immigrants and their families. The “collateral” damage? Seniors, workers, and employers. It’s time to let SSA focus on its core mission and leave policies driven by an anti-immigrant agenda behind.
Emily Tulli, a former NILC policy attorney, is a consultant working on special projects for NILC.