Restaurateur Marc Vetri said he's "all talked out" about the fate of some of his longtime employees who lost their jobs after Urban Outfitters Inc. acquired his restaurant chain, the Vetri Family.
The deal closed Feb. 1, and some Vetri employees quickly learned they would be out of work because they failed to pass Urban Outfitters' employee background checks, including E-Verify, which deals with immigration status.
"It just sucks," Vetri told Philadelphia Magazine's website. "But this is what America is. My grandfather left Italy when he was 17 years old, stowed away on a ship. He got here illegally. But the war was happening, so they said, 'You can fight for us! You're an American now. We'll waive that whole citizenship thing. Now go to war!'
"But now you have a different circumstance. You have second- and third-generation immigrants who have raised families here, and there's still no real road for them to get legal, even though they are the fabric of our society," he said.
Vetri confirmed to the magazine that 30 out of about 400 employees of Vetri's Osteria, Pizzeria Vetri, Alla Spina, Amis, and Lo Spiedo had lost their jobs. Some of those employees, he said, had become family friends, with his children visiting their children for play dates.
In a three-sentence statement, Urban Outfitters spokeswoman Oona McCullough said the company, known as URBN, offered jobs to all Vetri's employees, "contingent on successful completion of URBN's standard background checks which are applied to all employees nationwide.
"Unfortunately some did not pass one or more of these required checks, and as a result, we could not offer them employment at URBN," she wrote.
Neither Vetri nor his partner, Jeff Benjamin, would talk about the situation. Vetri texted that he was "all talked out." Benjamin referred calls to McCullough, who handles all corporate communications for Urban Outfitters.
Not all employers use E-Verify, the government's online tool for checking immigration status. But many do, including 9,594 in Pennsylvania and 7,674 in New Jersey, according to E-Verify. Inside city limits, 784 rely on E-Verify, including Urban Outfitters. The fashion and home-goods retailer, whose headquarters are at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia, employs 24,000, 37 percent of them full time, according its most recent annual report.
Although some legislators and politicians, including GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, support state and national mandates requiring E-Verify, some immigration advocates say the system has flaws.
Aside from technical and data-entry errors, "my problem is with E-Verify without comprehensive immigration reform," said Nadia Hewka, a Community Legal Services lawyer who works with some of these issues.
"All those people are in the U.S. contributing and working," paying taxes and paying into Social Security, she said.
When they lose jobs as a result of E-Verify, she said, they "are forced to go into underground cash-based economy, where we see people getting underpaid, working 70 or 80 hours without overtime or in unsafe working conditions."
Vetri told the magazine's website that he verified employment eligibility by what he called "eyeball screening," looking over candidates' paperwork and keeping it on file if it seemed genuine.