Photo of Mission High School front
Photo by Lydia Chávez

Dana — we’ll call them Dana — had their life changed when more than $6,000 was deducted from their paycheck over the summer.

The issue likely happened, they were told, because they had just obtained their master’s degree, and the school district’s new payroll system, EMPowerSF, did not process their credentials correctly. Meanwhile, the school district told them to wait, at times advising that they take out a loan.

The missed paycheck changed Dana’s life. They filled up the gas tank little by little. They subsisted on instant ramen, rice and eggs. They changed to a more affordable therapist and cut back on therapy.

Meanwhile, the recent graduate sought out scholarships to help pay the bills. They borrowed from their family to make rent. Even then, some bills went unpaid, and their credit score dropped. 

After more than a month — and numerous emails, help tickets, online meetings and visits to the payroll office — they were reimbursed at the end of August.

But $5,000 was deducted in taxes when, normally, only a few hundred dollars would have been deducted. Their health insurance and vision weren’t listed, either, leaving the status of those benefits unclear. They submitted a report, and were told the district didn’t have an update for them.

It has been eight months since the San Francisco Unified School District updated its payroll system to EMPowerSF, a move that has created payroll errors for, at minimum, hundreds of teachers and staff. Last Wednesday at a special board meeting, the district hired Alvarez & Marsal, an international management consulting firm, on a $2.8 million contract to address the backlog of payroll errors and “stabilize” the EMPowerSF system. A potential transitionary phase would build up ongoing payroll support. 

The firm has its work cut out for it: Because payroll issues are self-reported, the scope is hard to calculate, and the Alvarez & Marsal contract runs through the end of January, 2023. 

As of last week, Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators San Francisco teachers union, counted more than 70 grievances related to payroll. There are another 67 SEIU 1021 staffers listed in a spreadsheet on payroll issues, according to Antonaé Robertson, the union’s SFUSD chapter vice president.

When asked for the total number of payroll issues, Laura Dudnick, public relations manager for the district, said, “We are resolving issues as we learn of them. The number of help tickets is not an accurate representation of issues, because sometimes staff files multiple tickets for the same issue, or a ticket is filed which is just a question and not an issue.”

So, there’s much to figure out — and, currently, 14 weeks for Alvarez & Marsal to get its work done. Hanging in the balance here are employees trying to get paid correctly, many living paycheck to paycheck to serve San Francisco’s students.

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

Madison Williams, a social studies teacher at George Washington High School, caught Covid-19 during summer school and made $0.16 per hour, instead of the usual $50. Williams has since had a grievance hearing — where, she added, the district admitted fault — but the system still doesn’t know how to pay her, she said.

“It’s caused me so much stress,” Williams said. “I also think there’s a humiliation aspect to it … I have a bachelor’s, a master’s, I’ve worked so hard, and to have to fight to be paid is the biggest insult I could have imagined.”

Esther Flores, a social science teacher at Mission High School, went on maternity leave in January. She used up her sick leave pay as required, and began receiving her maternity leave pay in May, but the latter shorted her $1,500 a month.

“We’re already so underpaid, and I know that I work two or three hours every day more than what’s in our contract,” she said. “It’s just so demoralizing to not even get paid what I’m supposed to get paid, and then to have to worry about hitting up these people, like, ‘Hey, you owe me this money … ‘ and doing it now for over three or four months. And I still have not gotten paid.”

Elisa Romero, a counselor at George Washington High School, was already grappling with the issue of the district under-withholding her taxes by $8,000 when EMPowerSF was implemented, and she estimates that, since then, she’s been shorted more than $3,000.

Romero, who lost her father in July and wants to help provide financial support for her mother, said the underpayment made it unclear whether she could visit her mother on the East Coast.

“I don’t know if I can spend $1,800 on an airplane ticket at Christmas,” she said. “It’s my new world of, ‘Wow, you really can’t do much of anything because you don’t know what you’re getting paid every month’ — it just feels like it stops life.”

Sarita Lavin, a social studies teacher at George Washington High School, said she’s waited nearly two weeks for the district to respond to her help ticket asking about $480 that was improperly transferred to CalSTRS retirement from her paycheck over the summer.

The transfer of money to retirement accounts in July is one of at least four unresolved issues noticed by her fellow Washington High teacher, David Ko, who has helped numerous colleagues across the district identify payroll errors and alert the district.

“This feels like a full-time job, and I already have a full-time job,” he said.

It gets complicated. A second issue, he said, was an error with deferred net pay, where the district intends to reserve one-twelfth of each paycheck over 11 months to pay teachers in July. But the district took payments from only the first six months of the year, resulting in a smaller-than-anticipated July payment.

A third issue is that, while the correct monthly withdrawal for deferred net pay should be one-twelfth ( 8.3 percent), Ko’s own deduction for August was 7.6 percent, which would lead to a roughly $60 decrease in July, 2023.

The fourth issue, he said, is that the amount contributed toward his retirement plan is incorrect. For him and a handful of others, it should have been 10.25 percent, but instead, it appeared to vary between 10.5 percent and 11 percent. Ko said he submitted a help ticket 21 days ago and received no reply.

Most of these problems have been plaguing teachers since the beginning of the year.

“There are so many issues,” Ko said. “If this was done intentionally, this would be a great example of funding a bunch of problems. And EMPower’s problems have lasted almost as long as a pregnancy.”

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David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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  1. Oh my goodness they hired a firm to fix a payroll mess for $2.8 million dollars! How about hiring some efficient people to give that $2.8 million to the broke SFUSD teachers that have been waiting to get paid. We just throw money at our problems instead of discovering whom bought the EmpowerSF and holding them responsible for this fiasco. Follow the money Mission Local. That is the story. How we found ourselves saddled with this payroll system from hell and were there any kickbacks.

  2. Just like the foolish custom $20K trash cans that DPW is spending years vetting, inept SFUSD leadership felt that an untested, super-expensive, custom payroll software system was necessary — whereas they could off just selected from a number of reliable and cost-effective COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) systems that other districts use quite successfully.

    But no, we’re so “special” — and, thus, here we are.

    The incompetence of “SF exceptionalism” continues.

  3. I taught in SFUSD from 1993-2003. The ineptitude and incompetence of the central office was matched only by its hubris. Even in those halcyon days, they f’ed up my salary and paycheck multiple times.

  4. Someone in the district office, Myong Leigh perhaps, got tired of making teachers’ lives miserable one at a time and figured out a more efficient way to make all the teachers’ lives miserable at once. Thus! EmpowerSF! EmpowerSF is not so much a payroll company as it is a criminal enterprise.

  5. “. . .the district hired Alvarez & Marsal, an international management consulting firm, on a $2.8 million contract to address the backlog of payroll errors and “stabilize” the EMPowerSF system.”

    I wonder if Alvarez & Marsal’s 2.8 mil was “stabilized” (up front), and if it was, how’d they luck into such a lucrative short-term gig? (Also wonder wtaf “stabilize” means and includes.)

    In addition to some just unbelievably chintzy-assed but accruing accouting errors, it sounds like a crummy ticketing system is adding to the headaches. Kinda makes reporting and accountability hard to manage, huh?

    Hope the consultants’ responsibilities include figuring, finding, and delivering interest as well as principal monies. The teachers deserve it all.

  6. SFUSD has a been a clusterfest for 20+ years now. I am not surprised about this at all. School choice ranking (forcing students out of their home areas) is the worst.

  7. Good thing all those millions were wasted on a redmeat, pointless, stupid recall. Those funds should have been spent on our kids or our long suffering teachers. Now they’re wasting millions to fix a broken payment system. Ugh. Peak capitalism from Big Tech.

    1. Both recalls were extremely necessary.

      If we hadn’t done the school board recall, nobody would even be attempting to fix this situation. Have you forgotten that not only could they not pass a budget; board president Lopez — who is running again — complained that they shouldn’t have to pass a budget? What did she think her job was?

      One can argue about the Boudin recall, which was over philosophy, but the school board recall was over competence, and their lack of it.

      1. It remains to be seen how well the Mayor’s installed trio do. So far nada. While i disagreed with a number of the foolish things that the old School Board and Collins did, waiting until the next election to vote for others was THE sensible, fiscally responsible and proper thing to do. And Crooke Jenkins is corrupt and dishonest. Also installed by this Mayor. Name one actually verifiable accomplishment/improvement in our public schools since the recall. Name a single tangible improvement by this new DA. I’ll wait. It is regrettable that people who supported the recall cannot fathom they have empowered them there to install people who will answer only to her and not to us San Franciscans and voters. Recalls are stupid and expensive. Nothing was accomplished.

        1. …….It is regrettable that supporters of both senseless recalls fail to fathom that they empowered this mayor to install people who will answer only to her and not to voters or San Franciscans. Nothing was accomplished. Millions spent on nothing.

  8. Mission Local, I would like to know more about EmPower SF. Where did it come from? Who owns it? Who benefits from it?

    Who ordered its use for SFUSD payroll?

    This is a fine story about the victims, but please, look into the culprits.

    1. I agree with Lane. Who approved the implementation of EMpower?? At best it is clunky and janky to use, not designed well at all. We know first-hand because my husband taught for SFUSD. Seems like someone in admin might have gotten a kickback for approving EMpower. David and Joe, please keep digging!

      1. Maybe this is what happens when the District is compelled to select the most competitive public bid to save taxpayer’s money. The product is an amalgamation of off-the-shelf components (Mainly SAP) blended together to serve an extremely complex payroll and HR environment.