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Wisconsin business owners who employ immigrants celebrated a small victory last week in the Legislature. The state Senate rejected a measure to impose strict penalties on companies found to have employed an undocumented worker.

Senate bill 600 would have forbidden violators from receiving state or federal contracts, certain tax credits and exemptions, and local government loans or grants for a period of seven years. Under current federal law, business owners who knowingly employ ineligible workers can face fines of up to $2,000 for a first offense.

The bill’s failure is big news for Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, who increasingly rely on Hispanic immigrants to milk their herds. A report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in November revealed the difficulties dairy farmers face finding legal workers for their operations. The story is part of the Center’s ongoing coverage of the rise of immigrant labor in Wisconsin’s dairy industry.

The bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators, and opposed by state business interests including the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association.

John O’Brien, legislative correspondent for the DBA, called the measure an ill-conceived attempt to punish business owners who already struggle to determine the legal status of their employees.

“At the end of a two-year session, the Legislature rushed through a lot of bills they had sitting on their desks,” O’Brien said. “This bill came up very late in the session and the Legislature ran out of time to debate it.  Luckily it did not pass because the bill would have hurt Wisconsin businesses at a time when they are economically suffering from the poor national and state economy.”

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