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.
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.”