“We need this to stop!”

Angry over lack of payment and other payroll issues, Lowell teachers join other district educators in protest.

On Nov. 2, Lowell teachers and students protested the negative effects of EMPowerSF, the payroll system used by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). At 8:30 a.m., Lowell teachers gathered in front of the flagpole to participate in a “work to rule” job action, which calls for teachers to only work their contracted hours. On Wednesday, this was from 8:30 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. After school, SFUSD employees and students from elementary, middle, and high schools rallied together at 555 Franklin St., the SFUSD Central Office. Chants were called out, and many held up signs that read “EMPower Gotta Go” and “Cancel EMPower.”

EMPowerSF is a new payroll system adopted by the district in Jan. 2022, and has largely been met with negative responses from teachers, who point out that the system’s malfunctions have led to missed hours, benefits, and pay. According to United Educators of San Francisco Union representative Katherine Melvin, 25 percent of Lowell teachers have received incorrect paychecks. Within the last 11 months, many teachers haven’t acquired retirement deductions, insurance benefits, overtime pay, or retention bonuses. 

We’re hoping the district will fix our paycheck issues now.

— Tyler Centers

In addition to missing benefits, many teachers haven’t been paid their actual salaries. For English teacher Claudia Park, her issues with EMPowerSF date back to last school year, when she went on maternity leave. “While I was on leave, they stopped paying me, even though they were supposed to continue paying me,” she said. “Over the summer, they continued charging me for benefits that they were not providing, and when I returned to school in the fall, they started grossly underpaying me because they had my schedule entered incorrectly.” According to her, this has cost her thousands of dollars this year. Melvin shared another experience from another fellow anonymous Lowell teacher. “One individual received a negative paycheck of over $3,000, as in minus $3,000,” she said. “They have now been told that they owe the district over $10,000.” 

Kelcie Lee

In late October, the district sent out an email to SFUSD employees promising a reduction in the more than 3,500 filed complaints regarding pay. The email included an acknowledgement of teachers’ frustrations, as well as a pledge to increase communication and improve response times.

Despite these changes, many teachers’ haven’t received a response from the district. According to Park, her attempts at communication have gone largely ignored. “Almost no one responded to me from the district until I emailed the Head of Technology directly,” she said. Similarly, Melvin has experienced the same lack of response. “I have filed hundreds of help tickets. I’ve filed 50 grievances,” Melvin said. “Nobody answers our phone calls, nobody answers our emails, nobody explains any of this.” 

Several Lowell students also showed up to the protest in support of their teachers. Senior Bella Liu feels that this issue impacts her as well, and wanted to be there for her teachers. “Some of these teachers are debating whether or not to come to school because they’re not getting paid, but they show up for us every day, and this is what I can do to help them,” Liu said. “I want to pay back what I can.” 

Nobody answers our phone calls, nobody answers our emails, nobody explains any of this.

— Katherine Melvin

Some teachers believe that the district should solve the more urgent issue of missing paychecks, before addressing the more systemic problem with EMPowerSF. “I think what people first want is for everyone to be made whole, and for people to be given the money that they’re owed to have all their benefits restored,” Park said. “Second is to fix the ongoing situation with EMPowerSF, whether that means having a different system or to do what it needs to do to make sure it’s functioning for us.” Math teacher Tyler Centers also believes that paying teachers should be the district’s priority. “We’re hoping the district will fix our paycheck issues now,” he said.

Kelcie Lee

Melvin has seen the large impacts that EMPowerSF and SFUSD has had on teachers, and hopes that the Union will call for a strike soon. “The big problem is that this has been going on for 11 months. Our people are suffering… and are going to lose their homes. There are people taking out loans so that they can pay their bills,” Melvin said. “We need this to stop!”