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State to adopt pay system despite errors

Thousands of L.A. Unified and community college district workers did not receive checks or were paid the wrong amount, officials say.

February 19, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

A computerized payroll system that has left thousands of local public school and community college employees improperly paid will be adopted by state government next year despite its many problems.

The payroll system, to be phased in starting next January, would help the controller's office generate paychecks for more than 290,000 state employees. The office pays most state workers. It administers an $18-billion annual payroll that includes the state civil service, judges, elected officials and more than 59,000 California State University system employees.

California officials say they are working to avoid problems that have shortchanged faculty, cafeteria cooks and other workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles Community College District.

State and community college district officials are scheduled to meet this week to discuss "lessons learned" about the system.

The nine-campus community college district has issued about 2,000 emergency checks since implementing the system in 2005, but could not determine how many employees were affected, officials said.

The problems were most severe over the first year, when about 120 checks were issued a month, officials said. That figure is now about 60 a month.

In L.A. Unified, which started running the program in January, about 7,000 of the more than 77,000 district employees did not receive checks or were paid the wrong amount. The district has issued more than 2,200 emergency checks.

Community college district and faculty union officials agree that most payroll problems have been solved, but some still linger.

It has been nearly four months, and English teacher Susana de la Pena still hasn't been paid the roughly $3,000 owed to her by the Los Angeles Community College District. De la Pena, who taught at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, sued the district in December to secure overdue paychecks.

"There's a lot of people who are very upset, that are hurting and borrowing money, but they don't want to say anything because they don't want to lose their jobs," De la Pena said.

The American Federation of Teachers Faculty Guild filed a class-action suit against the community college district in the fall over payroll problems. One teacher involved in the suit is still owed about $9,000, from six months ago. The union will enter arbitration with the district this month, union officials said.

Representatives with the community college district and L.A. Unified acknowledged that some problems were caused by employees who were poorly trained in operating the new system. But the community college district and union also blame the software provider, the German company SAP AG.

"The problems that we've encountered here were really related more to some of the shortcomings in SAP that we discovered shortly after our 'go live' date," said Michael Phillips, payroll manager for the community college district.

Several community college district officials said they have been doing all they can to remedy the situation, including working overtime and devoting extra staff to the problem. The new software was rolled out at the district in July 2005 with much fanfare, replacing a roughly 30-year-old payroll system.

Phillips, however, called the changeover "horrific." A major stumbling block is so-called concurrent employment, in which workers hold different positions, sometimes at more than one campus, and are on different pay schedules for each job.

Concurrent employment accounts for nearly half of about 9,000 community college district employees, officials said.

The community college district spent $3.3 million on the software and about $23 million to launch the system and reconfigure it to district needs, officials said.

This is not the first time school systems have had trouble with the SAP software. Universities outside California encountered problems at least as far back as 1999.

SAP, founded in 1972 and considered a global leader in providing software for business integration, serves many large companies, including Walt Disney Co., Coca-Cola and IBM.

More than 20 million Americans are paid by employers using SAP software, according to the company. For the last 10 years it has tried to attract more public sector customers, targeting schools. In the United States it has 40 academic sites -- including Duke University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University -- and more than 300 worldwide.

In interviews last week, SAP officials said they were not aware of the community college district's continuing problems or the lawsuits. College district officials said that a heated meeting last fall with SAP officials established ground rules for what the district needed from the company.

An SAP executive defended the company's software and said some problems are caused by how the product is used.

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