By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Around the end of 2020, City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas received an unexpected bill due to the city: $17,452.
The city’s 2-year-old OnePhilly payroll system was to blame, which failed to deduct pension payments from his paychecks throughout the year, the freshman councilmember says.
Thomas said he was “outraged” when he learned of OnePhilly’s deduction error. But then Thomas discovered he wasn’t alone.
Some members of his staff experienced similar issues. Dan Lodise, Thomas’ legislative director, said he received a bill from the city for more than $3,600 for unpaid pension payments.
OnePhilly’s problems extend beyond Thomas’ office.
The pension deduction error affected 160 city employees, said Kenney administration spokesman Mike Dunn in an email. The city is looking to recover $279,290.57 in missed employee contributions, he said.
The missed pension deductions were identified last October when employees reported the issue to the Board of Pensions, Dunn said. The Kenney administration has yet to determine the cause of the deduction error. In the meantime, the city has put in a “temporary workaround” to prevent the issues from affecting more employees.
“We sincerely apologize to the 160 employees who have been impacted by this,” Dunn said. “As soon as the issue was identified, we implemented a workaround to limit the scope of the issue.”
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Thomas said the OnePhilly payroll system was flawed and that it was causing other issues as well. He said he had spoken recently with several members of the blue-collar AFSCME District Council 33, who expressed their frustrations over the errors in their city paychecks to him. District 33 represents about 10,000 streets and sanitation workers, among others.
“They’re losing days,” Thomas said about city workers. “They’re working hours and not getting paid for them.”
In an emailed statement, District Council 33 Vice President Omar Salaam acknowledged union members were having payroll issues.
“The issue around OnePhilly is one that we are well aware of and the complications around it and, we fully understand the frustrations that it brings to our membership,” Salaam said. “Our leadership is working diligently alongside the City of Philadelphia to rectify this issue.”
District Council 33 spokeswoman Jada Matthews declined to repeated requests to respond on the payroll issues and to the extent they are affecting union members. She said: “At this time, DC33 declines to comment any further on this matter.”
OnePhilly is the city’s system for human resources, benefits, payroll, time, attendance and pension. The system launched in phases starting in early 2019 and has cost at least $47 million so far.
Problems with the OnePhilly system are not new.
A 2020 report from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that breakdowns in the OnePhilly system led to errors in employees’ timekeeping and payroll, resulting in overpayments, underpayments and inaccuracies in hours, including for overtime.
On Tuesday, Rhynhart said in an email that pension payments not being deducted from employee pay was “another example of the kinds of breakdowns we saw in our initial review of OnePhilly.”
The city controller said her office will update its report of the OnePhilly system in the coming months to determine what issues persist.
Some in Thomas’ office say they have been hit with a double-whammy: Stuck repaying missed deductions combined with their regular pension deductions.
A staffer in Thomas’ office said she now takes home $400 less a month compared to last year due to the pension deduction error. Lodise said the city began deducting the missed deductions after putting him on a payment plan without his consent.
The deductions and repayments have cut his monthly take-home pay by approximately $500, he said.
“It was just taken out,” Lodise said. “I wasn’t given an option and it wasn’t explained to me.”
Dunn countered that city employees have not been automatically placed on repayment plans without their consent.
The Kenney administration has given affected employees the option to repay the missed deductions in a lump sum or through payroll deductions over 130 pay periods, Dunn said. The city notified those employees by mail and has given them until April 19 to respond.
Employees who do not respond to the letter are placed into a “recovery plan,” which deducts at least $10 per pay period over 130 pay periods, Dunn said.
Thomas, who makes approximately $130,000 annually, said he could repay the missed pension payments without too much hardship. But he voiced concerns about lower-earning city workers who “lost out on these clerical errors.”
“That type of deduction changes their livelihoods,” he said.
Thomas called on supporting those lower-earning city employees affected by OnePhilly’s errors, suggesting that some past pension payments should be forgiven for certain city employees earning under a certain salary.
Dunn said forgiving missed pension deductions “would not be fair to our other employees who did make the deductions” and would cause other issues.
Thomas has questioned the long-term viability of the OnePhilly payroll system.
“We want to see a change in the system,” Thomas said. “If OnePhilly cannot effectively do it, then we need to go in a different direction. … People can’t continue to suffer because of these clerical errors.”
Dunn said the OnePhilly system has vastly improved since the system went live two years ago.
“As with all systems, we are also constantly doing work to improve performance as business needs evolve,” he said. “To the extent that work causes unintended consequences, we move as quickly as possible to resolve any issues.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
(Disclosure: The Philadelphia Tribune’s reporters are members of District 1199C of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, which is an AFSCME affiliate union.)