The process can be long and tedious.
But that didn’t deter Peter Witkiewicz, owner of a growing Marietta firm called Comfort Keepers, which provides in-home, non-medical care to the elderly, helping them with food and clothing bathing, doing light house work and providing companionship. The company, started 10 years ago, employs 50 caregivers and 10 office staff.
“It was a major goal of mine,” Witkiewicz said of becoming a “certified IMAGE partner” of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs and Enforcement or ICE. “I thought it would create some positive press, good advertising, for my company.”
That was in April 2013. Nearly a year later, after many delays and a trip to the DHS office Atlanta, Witkiewicz says he can check that goal off his list. The DHS agent he was working with told him that Comfort Keepers, with offices at 240 Cherokee St., became one of only about a dozen private companies in the Southeast to be IMAGE-certified Feb. 20.
But not without a cost.
After close scrutiny of each employee’s legal status, he was stunned by the results.
“You could have knocked me out with a feather,” he said. “They found two of my employees, two of my best employees, were illegal.”
He was forced to fire the two caregivers.
He said the women were legal when he hired them, but their documents had expired.
“They’re good people, I felt sorry for them,” Witkiewicz said. “I thought I was being a good citizen but you pay a price for being a good citizen.”
He realizes, though, that the two employees he terminated paid an even higher price.
“It was an inconvenience for me,” he said. “It’s devastating for them. One of them, Victoria, had bought a house in the area.”
Nancy Kujawski, office manager for Comfort Keepers, said she told the fired workers to keep their heads up and try to get their papers up to date.
“I told this gal, ‘Get your paperwork in order, whenever you’re legal again I would like to talk to you.’ One was with us since 2010 and the other two or three years,” Kujawski said. “And they had regular clients that they were committed to. So we had to replace them and that was disruptive to our clients’ lives.”
Kujawski said the process opened her eyes about how easy it is to become the employer of someone in the country illegally.
“Some people are involved in hiring illegal employees, totally innocently in most cases, which was the case with us,” she said. “But we knew we had to do the right thing, because we always do the right thing, whether the government tells us to or not.”
Witkiewicz said he doubts the two illegal workers will pack up and head back to their home country south of the border.
“I asked these (federal agents) about that and they told me she’ll probably fake her papers and go get another job,” he said. “They know who you are and they know where you are. Will the government do anything about it? Probably not. I’m getting the feeling it’s kind of just for show.”