San Francisco Unified School District. Photo by Jennifer Cortez.
San Francisco Unified School District administrative offices. Photo by Jennifer Cortez.

Following a problematic rollout of a new payroll processing system in January, hundreds of San Francisco public school employees have been underpaid, mis-paid, or not paid at all. 

Both the district and the teachers’ union have confirmed that the number of affected employees is in the hundreds. The teachers’ union is threatening a class-action lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District, based upon non-payment of workers, whom it says are now entitled to full payment with interest. 

“I don’t see any evidence that they’re fixing the system,” said Nathalie Hrizi, the United Educators San Francisco’s vice president of substitutes. “And they are not moving quickly enough to address individual issues.” 

Hrizi did not receive a monthly paycheck of around $6,000. She was subsequently sent an off-cycle check to make up for the non-payment, but says the funds never made it into her account because “they were not verified. Whatever account the district paid me from, my bank could not get the funds out.” 

Teachers with more complicated classifications, such as substitutes with dual assignments and multiple pay rates or even pay periods, appear to be more susceptible to mis-payment. As are teachers who are on leave or involved in more esoteric programs. But every teacher Mission Local spoke with is now scouring his or her paystub. 

“My actual base pay has been pretty accurate,” said one high school teacher. But “many of the other deductions and withholdings have been wrong, and impossible to figure out how to begin fixing.” 

San Francisco Unified School District employees received an email from Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh on March 2, explaining that the problems stemmed from the January implementation of the EMPowerSF system, and that workers who were not properly compensated must be patient. 

“While the majority of our employees are getting correct and timely payments, a lack of payment and/or response for those who are not can be catastrophic,” acknowledged Leigh’s email. “For system-related errors, this is inexcusable; and we recognize the urgency of resolving each and every pay-related issue. Every staff member will be paid the money they are owed.” 

The question, however, is when: Leigh’s email noted that “the number of people who can fix issues is limited, and we are trying to train more as quickly as possible. We have moved 10 more people from other duties across various departments to support the Payroll, Salaries, Leaves and Benefits departments … ”

While more eyes are on the problems now, the teachers’ union has accused the district of rolling out a buggy program with insufficient support. At in-person sessions earlier this week, Hrizi said some affected teachers waited hours to speak to a district representative, and those people were unable to figure out what went wrong with the EMPowerSF system. 

Its problems appear to be vast, complex and multifaceted. Mission Local spoke to one teacher who received his roughly $5,500 auto-payment for January without a problem. But, one month later, he was shocked to see he was compensated only $30 for the entire month. 

Other teachers have complained about miscalculations with regard to myriad deductions, benefits or leave programs, or money intended for one location being mistakenly sent to another. One substitute teacher complained to the union that her monthly salary was, instead, deposited into her retirement account. This money cannot be expediently removed, and she received no payment for the month. 

Another teacher told Mission Local that she has received compensation for her regular hours, but has not been paid since December for the Saturday Covid recovery service classes she teaches.

“I had to borrow money,” she said. “I have overdraft fees. It’s really embarrassing.”

A district paraeducator told Mission Local that she has missed four of her last five paychecks, and hasn’t received one since January. She’s down nearly $5,000.

“My partner is also a teacher. We don’t make enough to live a comfortable life. We’ve been late on rent multiple times,” she said. “I have migraines. It’s just lots of stress.”

District spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said that EMPowerSF replaced an archaic prior system that had been in place for 17 years. 

“In the process of shifting from antiquated systems and processes to new ways of working, issues came up that have impacted payments for some employees,” she wrote. “The majority of the district’s nearly 10,000 employees have gotten accurate paychecks on time since the transition, but some have not. This is inexcusable and should not have happened. It is SFUSD’s responsibility to pay its employees accurately and on time. We deeply apologize to every employee who has experienced a delay.”

The apology is appreciated, but the teachers union wants more than that. Hrizi said that the glitchy EMPowerSF system was rolled out too hurriedly; she says the union pushed back on district plans to inaugurate it in August, 2021. “They moved it to January and it’s still a big mess.” 

Hrizi says a class-action suit against the district may be launched as soon as this month. “Legally, when you are not paid by your employer, you are entitled to three-to-10 percent interest on the pay you are owed,” she said. “We are moving ahead with the lawsuit at this point because they have not promised funds to folks who are due them.” 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Given that most teachers have a contract through their union, I’m not sure if this applies to teachers, but in general, there are very serious penalties for non-payment of wages in California. Teachers might contact the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement to find out if they can file a wage claim:

    Department of Labor Standards Enforcement – How to File a Wage Claim:
    https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/howtofilewageclaim.htm

    The advantage of this approach is that you don’t have to hire an attorney. The DSLE generally responds quickly and may be a quick way for individual teachers to have their wage claims reviewed and addressed.

  2. There was no compelling reason to lay this awful dystopian “Empowerment” system on all of us during this time of pandemic and extreme stress and other priorities. What used to take 3 seconds to simply sign in..now takes 15 to 20 minutes for each week for all of us and it still doesn’t work properly because it’s a very poor USER UNFRIENDLY system with endless pathways to perform the simplest function. This district is dying of improvement. No wonder school board members are being recalled.

  3. It’s unfortunate that only lawsuits motivate some people to act and correct the screw up.
    Instead the proper way would’ve been to hire competent people that can do their job.
    Too many incompetents and corruption have ruined the world, it’s high time to end this nonsense.

  4. Please look into how this contract with empower (salesforce?) was approved. sfusd has at least 5 different horrible websites they are paying millions for. the it department is known to be a crooked mess. i’m outta here.

  5. I love how you make it seem like the district is TELLING people to be patient. Get your facts straight.

    1. Actually, the DIstrict IS telling people to be patient. That is, when you can get a reply. For the record, I am short 60% of my pay since December, so I can attest to how bad it is.
      SFUSD has not even corrected the first check, so each pay period puts me further behind financially.

  6. With a little bit of leadership in the payroll department of the board of education, most of this “glitch” could soon be fixed. If there are 500 teachers with payroll errors due to EMPowerSF, then probably each of those 500 teachers needs someone in payroll to spend about a day doing payroll forensics. That’s 500 days of payroll forensics (rough estimate). Unfortunately, they only have ten extra people working to fix this. That doesn’t sound like quite enough people to fix this problem within the next month.

  7. Gag me with a spoon. This is completely inexcusable, except of course, it is SFUSD. What can one expect?
    What I would expect (hopelessly I am sure) is a backup plan when intruducing a new system of any kind, because the last thing you want to have happen is to have employees being in this sort of mess. Yes, lawsuit likely to come to San (we love lawsuits) Francisco.
    I say this as a past board trustee of a rural county school district (23 years), and a retired social services employee of the same county (27 years), while being on the employee association board for 12 of those years (6 years as the president). We were associated with the OE3 Union, public employees division. Luckily we worked with a county that reasonably cared to do the right things (most of the time) in both the school and general government areas. We worked hard for employees, and those affected by the services these entities provided, to make sure everyone got the the best things possible. What really hurts with this one is always the kids, their families, and of course, our underpaid teachers. Go get ’em!

  8. When I was a SFUSD teacher and the primary supporter of my family, we lived paycheck-to-paycheck. They made these mistakes all the time and when they did, it shaved years off my life in stress.

    The saddest thing about this piece is that it is nothing really new.

    Joe, please keep reporting on the district. Your information is incredibly valuable.

    We need to do so much better by our families (including and especially those under 18 and over 65) and essential workers, and being better informed is a nice big step in the right direction.

  9. I have taught for SFUSD for over 20 years and this is a perfect example of the bloated upper management at 555 Franklin (40% increase over the last 6-8 years) pointing fingers at one another, too busy to respond to employees emails or queries along with low-morale, in-fighting and political posturing amongst Executive Directors, Supervisors, Directors, Chiefs, Associate Sups, etc, etc. So, who pays for the blundering mess…$135 million? 61 of those positions that garner between 160-250 k each are being cut at central offices completely…Students, families, teachers and staff at the school sites will be shorted their fair share of the mismanaged burden. Shame on SFUSD & the BofE… SF has, must, and will do better.

    1. The bloated top heavy management didn’t happen overnight. It’s been that way for years. UESF was happy to let Central Office get fat until very recently. A big part of the problem is that we teachers in UESF have the same parent union as the administrator in UASF. So really none of us have a real union because we are in the same union. UESF is fine with a fat administration because AFT still gets money. We are never going to get a trimmed down central office. Too many people like it the way it is now.

    2. They aren’t cutting those 61 positions. They noticed 61 certificated central staff and 10 top managers. They said they were going to hire a consultant to see if they’re overstaffed, in which case some of these folks would be laid off. The consultant was supposed to be hired last week. They have not yet been hired. They aren’t actually laying off anyone at 555.