“Wake-up call”

After continuous lack of response from SFUSD surrounding payroll issues, Lowell teachers staged a “sick-out” to bring further attention and urgency to the problems.

Superintendent Matt Wayne is pictured talking to district teachers about issues surrounding EMPowerSF
Photo courtesy of Erin Hanlon-Young

On Dec. 7, over 90 percent of Lowell teachers staged a sick-out — a form of protest where teachers take a sick leave — and some joined other SFUSD educators in meeting with Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne’s at the district office. According to Lowell’s Educator’s Union representative Katherine Melvin, the meeting served as a platform for teachers to voice their grievances directly to the Superintendent regarding issues surrounding EMPowerSF, SFUSD’s payment software. 

Melvin described it as a “wake-up call” for Dr. Wayne, and revealed the severity of the struggles that teachers have been facing with payroll, health insurance, and benefits. This was the first time an exchange happened, according to Melvin, and with this new precedent, she hoped for more transparency from SFUSD about the payroll issue going forward.

While this meeting was in session, teacher absences at Lowell were paralleled by fewer students in school on Wednesday. Though some teachers held classes as usual, most students — those without teachers or substitutes — were directed to the library, auditorium, cafeteria, or other designated areas with adult supervision. 

It’s not ideal. If I could sit here and do my job and help my kids review [for exams], that would be my preference.

— Rebecca Johnson

Participating in the sick-out was not an easy decision for teachers due to the impact it might have on students, according to Johnson. One such teacher was Social Studies department chair Rebecca Johnson. “It’s not ideal,” she said “If I could sit here and do my job and help my kids review [for exams], that would be my preference.” Math teacher Ian Knight expressed similar concerns but acknowledged the necessity of the protest. “We’re taking away students’ opportunities for learning,” he said. “This is one day of us doing this action, but the way I justify this is you have multiple people leaving the district because they haven’t gotten paid.”

Empty classroom on Dec. 7 due to lack of teachers and students Photo by Ava Rosoff

The loss of instructional time as a result of the sick-out also presents challenges for students as final exams for the fall semester approach. “It makes me less stressed because I don’t have to worry about class, but also more stressed because I’m not getting taught,” freshmen Reis Sun said.

Since January, SFUSD has paid teachers using EMPowerSF. This led to problems for teachers such as being underpaid, getting money taken from their paychecks without explanation, or being dropped from their health insurance. Despite November’s work-to-rule and protest outside of 555 Franklin St., SFUSD’s Central Office, teachers remained unsatisfied with the lack of response. Several staff members, including Social Studies teacher Amanda Klein, have been frustrated with the pace at which the issues are being addressed. “We continue to face the issues and therefore we continue to want to escalate and amplify the message that we’re trying to send,” Klein said. “The district has proven that after 12 months, they haven’t worked the kinks out. They’re paying for it and [teachers are] the ones really paying for it.” Due to persisting problems surrounding EMPowerSF, some district teachers planned a sick-out to protest. For many teachers, today’s sick-out is a way to stand with their colleagues. “I want to stand with my family and my friends who have been affected by it to know that I am there to support them,” math teacher Ian Knight said. 

We continue to face the issues and therefore we continue to want to escalate and amplify the message that we’re trying to send.

— Amanda Klein

Despite the district’s issues with EMPowerSF, teachers have stressed the importance of Lowell administration’s  efforts to mitigate the damages within the school. “Our administrative assistants have been really instrumental to make sure people do get paid on certain schedules.” Klein said. “We, here at Lowell, have had fewer issues than some schools because of how awesome people like our administrative assistants are.” In addition to this, Lowell’s administrative staff also experienced issues with EMPowerSF payrolls. “I just reactivated my health insurance after last Thursday, after the third time of it being canceled in less than two months,” principal Michael Jones said. “Not because of something I did, but because of system errors.”

Rebecca Johnson is pictured talking to district teachers                Photo courtesy of Erin Hanlon-Young

With the impacts of the sick-out felt by students, faculty, and district administration, Melvin hoped that this teacher movement was enough to prompt an effective solution to EMPowerSF’s payroll issues. She expressed the importance of the district addressing the problems right now to avoid the need for future action.