E-Verify, the federally operated online system employers can use to check whether the people they’ve hired are legally eligible to work in the United States, is used by about 500,000 employers across the United States, the Department of Homeland Security reports.

The system is voluntary for most private-sector employers, though 23 states require some or all employers to use E-Verify. Any employer may sign up for the system, which is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of DHS. Congress is weighing whether to make it mandatory.

Here are six points to keep in mind if you’re thinking about signing up for E-Verify.

  1. The system can provide some peace of mind. E-Verify can give restaurants additional peace of mind that they’ve taken steps to ensure they’re complying with immigration laws, said John Fay, general counsel and vice president of product development for LawLogix. The Phoenix, Ariz. company helps businesses with E-Verify, I-9 compliance and immigration case management. Employers face heavy penalties if they are found to have knowingly hired a person who’s unauthorized to work in the United States. Fines aren’t the only problem. “You don’t want to be faced with a situation where you’ve lost employees after you’ve spent time training them,” Fay said. “You’re going to lose talent and have interruptions in your business.”
  2. The system doesn’t give absolute protection from hiring violations, and you’ll still need to take other steps during hiring, like completing the I-9 form, having newly hired employees attest to their status, and reviewing authorization documents, Fay said. But using E-Verify as part of the process can weaken accusations that a restaurant has knowingly hired someone illegally, he said.
  3. The system operates quickly – usually. Employers enter data from the employee’s I-9 form to check eligibility. That includes such information such as the individual’s name, other names used, birth date, Social Security number, and if applicable, alien registration number, USCIS number or foreign passport number. Results usually come back in less than a minute, though sometimes the system can take longer, USCIS spokesman Bill Wright said. More than 98 percent of employees whose names were entered into the system between October 2012 and September 2013 were authorized to work within 24 hours, according to USCIS.
  4. Training is mandatory. If you decide to use E-Verify, anyone in your restaurant who uses the system must sign a non-negotiable memorandum of understanding, complete a training session and pass a mastery test, said Steve Blando, public affairs officer for USCIS.
  5. E-Verify isn’t a pre-screening tool. It’s illegal to enter a name into E-Verify unless you’ve made a job offer and the employee has accepted, Fay said. Also, E-Verify must be used for all new hires once an employer enrolls. The system can’t be used selectively on employees, Blando said.
  6. Just because someone isn’t initially approved doesn’t mean they’re not legally authorized. When employers receive a “tentative non-confirmation” from E-Verify, they’ll get a form to give explain to the employee how to resolve the issue. Employers must make sure the employee understands that he or she can contest the notice, Fay said. “You want to do whatever you can to walk them through it. In many instances, it’s just a government mistake or error. Sometimes they get married and change their names, and forget to update their records.”

Some common reasons for TNCs: a recent change in citizenship or immigration status, failure to report a name change to the Social Security Administration, an incorrect Social Security number or birth date in Social Security records, or employer errors when entering information.

Get details on how to enroll in E-Verify.