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District foots bill for payroll snafu

Ben Lumpkin
Tuesday June 19, 2001

A Superior Court Judge issued an injunction against the Berkeley Unified School District Monday saying its plan for recovering the money it overpaid classified employees this March is illegal.  

With the injunction in place, the district would have to take 67 classified employees to court individually to recover the money, an estimated $46,000. 

Due to an error in the payroll office, the Berkeley school district paid nearly 500 classified employees double the backpay due to them under a new contract this March. 

At the time, the solution to the problem seemed simple enough – withhold the amount the district had overpaid from a future pay check. 

In meeting with Public Employees’ Union Local One, the district eventually agreed to deduct the overpayment from employees pay checks in two installments – one in May and one in June – so the bite out of any one pay check wouldn’t be as big. 

But not all classified employees were happy with this solution either. Claiming the district’s mistake was causing them financial hardship, 67 classified employees turned to another union for help – Stationary Engineers Local 39 out of San Francisco. 

In response to a petition from Local 39, an Alameda Superior Court Judge Ford issued an injunction on behalf of the 67 employees, prohibiting the school district from proceeding with the plan to deduct the second half of the March overpayment from their June paychecks. (The injunction only applies to the 67 employees named in the petition). 

The judge found that the district had not followed the letter of the law in the way it attempted to recover overpayment, according to Local 39 Business Representative Stephanie Allan. 

Catherine James, the associate superintendent of support services for the school district, conceded that the district, “did not go through the legal process of getting a garnishment of wages.”  

Issues of law aside, Allan said the district’s method for recovering the overpayment placed many classified employees – custodial, maintenance, food services, clerical workers and others – in an extremely difficult position.  

Because the March overpayment was taxed in a higher bracket, even if employees did not spend a cent of the overpayment money it would not have been enough to cover the repayment deductions from their May and June paychecks, Allan said.  

Allan said as a result, a number of classified employees must find a way to get through the month of June with significantly reduced income. 

“You’re dealing with employees who are at or near the poverty line; people who are living from pay check to pay check. ” Allan said. 

Many classified employees make between $11 to $14 an hour, Allan said. 

James said the district explained to classified employees how to ensure that the money taxed in a higher bracket is refunded by the IRS, either over the course of the next fiscal year or in one lump sum at the end of the year.  

But Allan said this provides no solution to the employees’ current financial hardship. Furthermore, she said, the process of filing new tax forms is onerous for many. 

“What are they going to do, go to the tax accountant to figure it out?” Allan asked. “This is going to be a nightmare for them.”  

In addition to the 67 employees who filed for the injunction with Local 39, more than 100 classified employees have filed claims against the district with the State Labor Commissioner, Allan said.