CHAPEL HILL — They bus tables and change linens at Chapel Hill's signature hotel, the site of festive alumni gatherings and outdoor bluegrass concerts, and they might soon be out of their jobs.
The Carolina Inn at UNC-Chapel Hill might have to fire 37 employees whose Social Security numbers don't match their names in federal records.
The inn has been notifying these employees, who make up 11 percent of its work force, after receiving a no-match letter from the Social Security Administration.
Creston Woods, the hotel's general manager, said he is concerned the workers may be illegal immigrants who gave the hotel fake Social Security numbers.
"I'm always concerned about that," he said. "That is really between them and the Social Security Administration. ... We're a conduit at this point in time."
Five years ago, a similar number of Hispanic workers lost their jobs at local supermarkets in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Woods confirmed that most of the Carolina Inn's non-matching workers are Hispanic.
The Rev. Maria Palmer, a Hispanic activist, said the letter has spread fear in the Hispanic community. The inn, built in 1924 as a showpiece for tourists and alumni, is known among local Hispanics as a good, well-paying employer, she said.
"Everybody in the Chapel Hill Hispanic community knows somebody that works at the Carolina Inn," Palmer said. "It's devastating to a bunch of families.
"Many of them came in illegally," she said. "I don't know how they're going to make it financially."
Palmer said she has heard from workers who received notice of the mismatched numbers and think they have been fired, but Woods said the employees in question have continued to show up for work.
He declined to release a copy of the letter, but the Social Security Administration did provide its standard form letter. It urges the recipient not to jump to conclusions.
"IMPORTANT," it states in bold lettering, "This letter does not imply that you or your employees intentionally gave the government wrong information. ... Nor does it make any statement about the employee's immigration status."
Woods said the inn has not yet fired anyone and that he hasn't noticed any effect on employees' morale or performance.
Jim Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill economist and immigration expert, said losing one out of 10 workers would devastate a business, but he is not sure that will happen at the Carolina Inn. He echoed the no-match letter, which explains that marriage, divorce or a typo could lead to a mismatched Social Security number.
"There could be a reason that they're not matching other than that they're fraudulent," Johnson said. "Before you rush to judgment, you've got to let it play out."
Woods said the employees were all hired before 2002, when the inn began checking applicants' Social Security numbers against federal records.
The Social Security Administration sends out "no-match" letters every year, but only to employers with at least 10 non-matching employees and only if those employees represent at least one half of one percent of the work force. For example, a company of 3,000 employees would need 15 employees to trigger notification.
The agency sends out approximately 125,000 of these letters each year.
Woods said it's not unusual to receive a no-match letter, but the large number of mismatched employees is out of the ordinary.
"It's just the numbers right now," Woods said. "We have more people now on the list than we've had in the past."
The inn has 60 days to resolve the discrepancy with the Social Security Administration. If the employees cannot provide legitimate Social Security numbers, they are likely to lose their jobs.
"We'd have to comply with whatever law there is," Woods said. "They would be terminated."
Staff writer Jesse James DeConto can be reached at 932-8760 or email@example.com.