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Weeks without a paycheck: Baltimore fiasco hurts workers, city’s reputation | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott at City Hall. December 24, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore workers are in a tizzy, and they have every reason to be. The city has botched a move from paper paychecks to an electronic payroll system that has left hundreds of employees shortchanged or not paid at all. The mistakes have continued several weeks after the city transitioned to Workday software in an effort to bring its payroll system into the current century. The mishaps have brought complaints from several of the city’s unions, and Mayor Brandon Scott said he has heard personally from workers distraught about the situation, which has left some employees in financial binds and behind on bills. The problem couldn’t come at a worst time because of the economic fallout of the pandemic.

The situation is an early bruising to an administration and City Council that has vowed for a more efficient and transparent government free of corruption, even if the rollout of the payroll system started under Mr. Scott’s predecessor. This is certainly not the picture of a well-run government. Unfortunately, Mr. Scott is left to clean up the mess and make workers whole. The fiasco adds to the long list of issues that feeds into the narrative that Baltimore City can’t be properly managed. Every rollout of a new system can expect to have some glitches, but the wholesale problems with payroll and the time taking to fix them are unacceptable. No one should have gone weeks without a paycheck before being compensated.

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The public needs a better explanation from the finance director about what happened to screw up the process. Hopefully, we will get that during an investigative hearing before the City Council next week. Mayor Scott seems to get the severity of the situation and has said he will hold people accountable “We’ve got to make sure people are getting paid,” he told The Sun recently. “The finance director knows. They have to make this a priority. If they cannot fix this, there are things that will have to happen as a result.”

One of the issues that is coming out is that there wasn’t a fail safe component included in the system to catch mistakes and compensate for them, Mr. Scott said. So problems are having to be fixed in real time. The finance director has also blamed employees making errors in how they entered their hours and that issues also came up when employees took leave since the new system was implemented. It seems like city officials should have anticipated issues like these, especially human error, and been better prepared to address them. And it still leaves us wondering if something else may be at play.

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The new payroll system, Workday, is not a novel one. It is used by many companies, including The Sun. So it seems the mistakes would have come by city officials at the implementation level, rather than with Workday, which should be experienced with new rollouts. If the problem is with Workday, we would expect the city to hold them accountable as well. For now, the focus should be devoted to getting employees paid, but there should also be an extensive post mortem when this is all over to make sure problems like this don’t arise again.

The city in the meantime has issued paper checks to workers, and Mayor Scott has vowed it would reimburse employees for money they had to pay in late fees because they couldn’t pay bills on time. That is a good start, and shows he understands the bad spot people are in. Perhaps, the city could also consider offering bonuses to help with the financial difficulties now. No one wants a ding on their credit report for something that they could not control, or the additional stress of making ends meet.

As painful as the transition has turned out, we still believe the city made the right move in going digital. The Fraternal Order of Police was the one of the groups who questioned the readiness of the rollout. But it is something that is needed once everything is fixed, especially in that department. Overtime fraud within the police department is one of the factors that led to a less antiquated system. An audit found the police department’s reliance on paper time sheets left it more vulnerable to such fraud. The change was one that was long overdue and the right decision.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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