For the past seven years, Veronica Bass has worked as a teacher's assistant in the Houston Independent School District. Besides helping out in the classroom of her middle school, she's been a head softball coach and a volleyball coach, and she helps out coaching Special Olympics students. She's also the mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 15.
So she has a busy life. And like most people with busy lives, sometimes she doesn't nail down all the details.
In her case, this has resulted in a not-inconsiderable gotcha. She wasn't looking at her paycheck stub; didn't do it for years. When she finally got around to checking it out in 2009, she discovered that she'd been paying out not just one but two deductions in union dues in a lot of paychecks in 2008 and 2009. One deduction was at a teacher's (higher) rate and the other at her own lower clerical/teacher's assistant level.
On other checks, she'd only had one deduction, but it was coded for a teacher. In bits and pieces, dollars and cents, she'd been overpaying for union representation for quite a while.
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So she went to the Houston Federation of Teachers for help, and what followed, as HFT itself confirms now, wasn't optimum. She kept getting assurances that things would be fixed — that she would be reimbursed for the overpayments — and nothing happened.
She eventually took her problems to the payroll department in HISD and the incorrect withdrawals were finally stopped by HISD as of her November 11, 2009 paycheck. But that did nothing about the previous overpayments.
An HFT secretary, hewing closely to the official line, initially offered Bass a $53 reimbursement. Bass thought she was probably owed a whole lot more than that and asked that the matter be investigated further. She requested printouts and records, and in the end — HFT discovered she'd paid at the wrong rate way back in 2004 as well — she now figures that she's owed more than $1,000.
In January 2010, HFT chief of staff Helen Wheatley offered Bass $150 as a settlement agreement for her overpayment, with the additional stipulation that Bass would receive one free year of dues in 2010-11. Bass did not accept.
HFT does not agree with Bass's $1,000 request. Initially, HFT President Gayle Fallon agreed with the smaller payout, but then union rep Joanna Pasternak investigated and found that perhaps another rep hadn't pushed Bass's case forward appropriately in 2009. Fallon decided they'd cover more than the one year that their bylaws call for. But there was no way they were going back to 2004, Fallon said.
By the end of her correspondence with Bass, Fallon had lost all her good humor — after Bass accused her of "fraud" — and, writing from her BlackBerry, Fallon said: "Any further correspondence will be handled by our attorney."
In the latest offer, made in October, HFT put a last-ditch $512.20 on the table. Pasternak says Bass accepted this offer verbally, but later changed her mind and wouldn't sign the paperwork. Bass says she never said she'd sign off on that amount.
As a wonderful side note to all this, HISD and HFT seem to be at odds over how to resolve a wrong-paycheck issue involving union dues. HISD spokesman Jason Spencer says anyone who has a problem with union dues should go to HFT to get it resolved. HFT says no, the individual should go directly to HISD payroll — they'll be glad to help, but really, payroll deductions are between the employer and the employee.
"She was apparently double-deducted. I told her we'll refund her a year," Fallon says. "She doesn't seem to understand that some of this was actually her responsibility. I don't get to see your paycheck, you do," Fallon says. "No one's trying to cheat her."
Bass remains unconvinced. She wants to know why HFT or even HISD isn't at all responsible for looking at the numbers they generate. She says she's not the only one who's paid too much in union dues. HFT reps agree there have been others, but say it hasn't been many over the years.
Bass wants to know why HFT isn't doing right by her (as she sees it) — even though as a union steward on her campus, she's been one of HFT's biggest supporters.
In an October 13, 2011 letter to Bass, Pasternak says the whole mistake initially occurred because Bass filled out "two enrollment forms." According to Pasternak, this happened in 2004 and 2005 and again in 2008 and 2009.
Bass says no, that's not exactly it. The first time around, she was brand-new to the district and when someone said she should join the union, she thought it sounded like a good idea, filled out the form handed her and turned it in. For those years, she says, she was charged at the higher teacher's rate, not double-charged.
In 2008, she was released from her contract at one school and there was a gap of several months before she was hired by a principal at another school. Nothing was being taken out for her union dues so she asked HFT what she should do, and she was told to fill out another card. Which she did, even though she apparently shouldn't have — it resulted in her paying dues as both a teacher and a teacher's assistant. Since she didn't check her pay stub, she didn't know.
In news that will surprise no one, teacher's assistants don't make a whole lot of money. Bass says she started out around $12,000 a year and now makes $18,600. So Bass supplements with public assistance. As she was getting ready to make one of her regular trips to HISD's administrative offices in 2009 to pick up documentation to hand in to the state so she could continue to qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance, a friend of hers said, "You know you can just go online and pull it down."
Her friend walked through the process with her, printed out a paycheck and Bass finally, really looked at her deductions. And looked again. She was being charged $15.40 for union dues on one line and $23 on the line right above it. She started asking questions.
According to former HFT data entry operator Marcelina Flores, the union office that Veronica Bass walked into in 2009 was in chaos, with paperwork everywhere and little accounting of records being kept. (Told this, Pasternak labeled Flores "a disgruntled former employee" and said Flores was part of the problem.)
"I was in charge of all the membership data. I became aware some members were being double-charged and triple-charged," Flores says. "Some were charged at the wrong rate." She said she did not do a comprehensive investigation, but in the cases she examined, she found close to 20 members who were being incorrectly billed. She says she took the information to Fallon, who said something about "If they're too stupid to check their paychecks..."
A short while later, Flores said, she was dismissed, told that they didn't have enough funds to retain her position. She doesn't think that was true. "I think they realized they couldn't trust me because I was bringing to their attention problems and finding out a lot of things." In fact, she says, presented with a severance packet whose conditions included never saying "anything negative about the organization," Flores balked, refused to sign and went on food stamps till she found another job.
"I know there's a lot of things that can't be corrected, but we should be making things right, especially when members are looking up to you to handle their money fairly and effectively."
Gayle Fallon says that with 7,000 members, of course HFT is going to make some mistakes. When someone fills out a color-coded union card — they have been improved in recent years to include the category on the front, Bass says — it's then turned in to HFT, which inputs the information and sends it on to HISD payroll. If there haven't been initial mistakes, there can be data entry ones along the way.
But, however all the mistakes were made in Bass's case, there doesn't seem to have been much of a cross-checking function by anyone to make sure the rolls were right. The hope was that inconsistencies would be spotted by someone reviewing a list of all those members' names. "You'll go blind," Fallon says, adding: "Her case is somewhat unusual but not uncommon," particularly with someone new to the system.
In a December 9, 2009 e-mail, HISD Senior Payroll Analyst Terrance J. Smith, in response to a question from Bass, wrote, "Our payroll system will alert us if a deduction code is the same as one that already exists for an employee. However, if an employee signs a second authorization with a different deduction amount ( i.e., a different dues category), then the system does not recognize that as a 'double' deduction. It is the employee's responsibility to monitor their pay statements for any possible problems."
But he goes on to say: "I would think that the representatives of HFT would be more proactive in recognizing who is or is not already currently paying dues to their organization. HISD provides this service free of charge to those organizations as a courtesy to our employees, but the responsibility for making sure that adequate records are maintained, as well as the liability for any oversights which may occur, ultimately lies with them."
One of the points Pasternak makes is that because she is a union steward, Bass above all people should have known how to fill out her union forms correctly. But Bass says she wasn't a steward until later, and certainly not in 2004 or 2008, and no, she didn't know all about how it should be done.
Refunding the money to Bass means more of a loss to HFT than a simple reimbursement, Fallon said. To begin with, most of the money the union collects goes to state and national union coffers for lobbyists and insurance payments. HFT won't be getting any of that back, Fallon says.
"I paid insurance on her twice. I only keep about 45 cents on the dollar," she says. In most cases, she says, people catch the errors fairly quickly.
HFT has gotten a new computer program from its state offices that's supposed to root out duplicate payments, Fallon says, although it still can't tell if someone is coded incorrectly and being charged at the wrong rate. In other words, it does what HISD computers already do (but certainly better than what the union had).
No one disputes that Bass overpaid her dues. What is at issue, besides the exact total amount — Pasternak says even if they reimbursed Bass back to 2004, it would add up to about $790, not the $1,000 Bass claims — is how much she should be docked for making a mistake.
"We'll pay for our share of the error," Fallon says. "The bottom line is, it's your paycheck, you control it."
Veronica Bass, a woman who gets by on food stamps in addition to an $18,600 annual salary, knows she messed up. But in the realm of life lessons, does her inattention amidst everything else she was juggling in her life really need to be punished that harshly? A few hundred dollars more represents a considerable portion of her yearly income.
She's appealed to HFT, to her school board trustee and to the superintendent's office. Before in her life, she says, she didn't have the ability to fight for herself. Now she thinks she does. Wouldn't that be kind of funny, if she got that new attitude from being a member of the union for all these years?
So, as a last resort, on October 21, Bass went down to Small Claims court and filed against HFT and its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, to recover all the dues money she overpaid. Let's see what they make of all this there.
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