Local Politics

Workers say state's payroll system keeps shortchanging them

State workers protested in Raleigh Thursday, saying that efforts to improve the new payroll system haven't caught up on shortfalls in their paychecks.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State workers protested in Raleigh Friday, saying they have not been paid wages that state's new payroll system shorted them.

Workers marching in front of the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters carried signs saying that the payroll system, called Beacon, was broken.

Beacon has made her broke, too, said Velma Sharpe-Vick, a worker at the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson. The system messed up her paycheck over recent months, shorting her $840, Sharpe-Vick said.

"They were threatening to cut my lights off, my mortgage payment, my car payment – just financial burdens that normally I'd done paid in August," Sharpe-Vick said. "I'm struggling to pay now, to catch up."

Workers for the School for the Deaf said they came to Raleigh after protesting weekly in Wilson since late August. They said problems with overtime and shift differentials have not been fixed.

Employees at Cherry and Dorthea Dix hospitals also protested, saying that their paychecks, too, have taken a hit from Beacon.

"My understanding is that Beacon is having a hard time calculating when a shift doesn't occur 8-to-5 Monday through Friday, " Melissa Nelson, a social worker at Dorthea Dix hospital, said.

A spokesman for the Office of the State Controller said that it has been working to improve data input and training and to make changes to Beacon, which processes paychecks for nearly 90,000 state workers.

"The No. 1 priority for the Office of the State Controller is to make sure that state employees receive the pay to which they are entitled, and all of our resources are focused on that result," Dennis Patterson, the agency's public affairs director, said in a written statement.

The state signed a $28 million contract in 2006 to replace a 30-year-old human resources and payroll system. After the cost grew to $71 million and the system had gone through an initial testing phase, Beacon was rolled out statewide in April.

Between December 2007 and August, the Beacon call center received over 64,000 questions and complaints from state employees.

The N.C. Public Service Workers' Union organized Friday's rally, and members delivered a petition to a DHHS official. It  demanded that $7,000 in overdue wages be paid to the people at the protest, that the governor declare a state of emergency to give immediate relief to employees and that the state Department of Labor do a thorough investigation of the issue.

Patterson said that his agency's service center received very few calls Friday from DHHS or other agencies.

Patterson said that his agency has ironed a lot kinks out of Beacon and would continue efforts to make the system work well.

"We are making adjustments to the system and working with agencies and individual state employees to address their issues," Patterson said.

Despite the state controller's improvements, employees at the protest said that issues with their paychecks have not been resolved.

"My paycheck still hasn't gotten right," said Dix worker Monica Briggs, who claimed to be out about $500. "And by them throwing my paycheck off like that, it gets me behind in several of my bills."

"That's quite a bit of money to just lose in a month's time when you have to make a living," said Jeffrey Neal, a school employee who said he hadn't lost any money due to Beacon but wanted to support his colleagues who had.

"They got the paychecks so screwed up, we really don't know what's going on," Sharpe-Vick said.

Employees can call hotlines to have their cases reviewed. In Raleigh, the number is 919-707-0707. Elsewhere in the state, workers can call 866-622-3784.

Protesters also chanted, "What do want? Bill of Rights!" – referring to a union campaign for a "DHHS/Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights" that would ensure a right to "family-supporting wages."