Where’d the dough go? Silly answers to a great question (DOE Part 3/3)

February 10, 2013 at 10:09 pm Leave a comment

In my last post, I got a bit carried away whining about how the NYC Department of Education gives independent contractors a raw deal and then denies payment even after you accept that deal. So, what ever did happen to those payments? According to the NBC report, the DOE says the reason why thousands of providers went unpaid for months (still counting, for many) is because they were awaiting “required documentation.” However, as I described in my previous post, the only paperwork they ever requested was invoices and approval letters. Their contract says that from the time I send those, I should expect payment in 6 weeks (that’s weeks, not months). Thousands of providers did exactly what the DOE said, and were only informed of additional “required documentation” after calling repeatedly to ask why they hadn’t been paid. Now, I won’t dispute the DOE’s right to request additional documentation of services rendered. However, they have no right to withhold payments for services provided before these requirements were in place, and if they do decide they want more junk from us, they need to tell us clearly and in advance of the requirement. I should have received a letter, email, or phone call over the summer or accompanying my case approvals for this year saying something like “Dear Contractor, Please note that as of September 2012 you will be required to blah blah, and we won’t pay until you do.” Instead, what happened was that hundreds of unpaid workers individually clogged up the DOE phones asking for their money, and were told “But you didn’t sign up with the QRST system.” What QRST system? Never heard of it. Where do I find it? What do I do? It would also be nice if the “additional documentation” were less cumbersome and redundant. Since finding out about the new requirements, I have had to:

  • Sign up for a “vendor portal” by entering my name and SSN – they already HAVE my name and SSN, why don’t they just add me to their database when they approve me for the service in the first place? Wait for approval/confirmation.
  • Sign up for “SESIS” the same way – Again, can’t they just combine their databases? Wait for approval/confirmation.
  • Get approved for “PETS” by emailing someone to ask them to approve me. I still don’t know the significance of this.
  • Something about fingerprint verification which I had to do when I first started this job, my fingerprints haven’t changed since then as far as I know. I also had to get fingerprint clearance when applying for my teaching certification in the first place, so if they know I’m a certified teacher they should be able to find my fingerprint info on file somewhere.
  • Call “IVR” to record my start dates for each student. Note that my start date is also listed on the original service approval form, so again, they ought to have this info down somewhere. Wait for them to be added to my SESIS file.
  • Go back to SESIS and enter all my attendance data. Note that my invoices also need to include the exact dates and times of attendance. My guess is that they need us to record it twice so that if we ever make a typo so they don’t match, they can accuse us of perjury and invalidate our whole month on both systems. Anything to avoid paying up.
  • Download a new invoice form that will only work properly in the most up-to-date version of Microsoft Excel. Type my attendance and billing information into this form, which takes a lot because with the way they pay me I haven’t upgraded my computer in years, and of course the computers in the school I work in are provided by the DOE and are only to be used directly with the students. This would be considered my “personal” use so I’m on my own. And their form doesn’t translate well with old programs.
  • Also new on the forms this year are start and end times. You used to have to write only the length of the session. Since I first caught wind of this only a few months into the school year, do I now need to reconstruct history to figure out when I saw kids before my schedule was finalized? For years they wanted total time, so that’s what I recorded on my attendance sheet every day. Oh, and instead of typing right into the form, I need to choose those times from drop-down lists of 5-minute increments from 6AM to 9:45PM. A minor hassle, but why?

…and that’s before you can even think about getting paid. By the way, after using the new computerized invoice, you still need to print it out and mail it in together with copies of the original approval letters and “P4” forms for each student – as if they can’t keep a record of who’s approved for which services. So I’m not sure how much they gain by computerizing the thing in the first place. I’m in favor, theoretically – now when they lose my papers, it will be easier for me to print off a fresh copy. Meanwhile, I’m already losing track of how many different systems I’m signed up for, which one had which password, and what I’m supposed to use them all for.

Fortunately, for all its exciting twists and turns, the system apparently does work eventually and people are finally getting paid for the work they did in September. Strangely, many have found discrepancies between the amount they billed and the amount received. So the phone calls begin again. Since I haven’t been paid yet this year (not to worry, it hasn’t yet been six weeks since I completed my scavenger hunt of “required documentation,” so no complaints there…) I don’t know if they’ve streamlined this part, but last time I had to call about missing funds it took over a month. First you get bounced around from one desk to another until you hit a dead end where someone’s away from their desk and the voicemail box is full. Then you get a person who says that the person you need isn’t there. Then you finally get the person you need, and they say they’ll look into it. You melt with gratitude and wait for them to get back to you. You go on waiting until you realize they aren’t getting back to you, and then you try again. So far, these are the reasons we’ve been given for the discrepancies:

  • Not sure, will look into it further, have to ask someone else in a different department whose voicemail box is full.
  • Their mistake, don’t know how it happened, but they’ll fix it – let us know if you don’t receive the money someday.
  • Session lengths must be a multiple of 15 minutes. Some or all of your sessions weren’t, so they rounded it DOWN for you (and then they want you to teach kids that rounding is to the nearest. And that in some situations you need an exact answer without rounding). I got this excuse. I have never seen this rule documented anywhere, and I read all the fine print available. My approval forms say “Session length: a period.” That year, the school I worked in had 40-minute periods.  Note that they did not round the total number of minutes to the nearest 15; they rounded EACH SESSION down to 30 minutes, essentially docking 25% of my pay for the month. This was for three months: the first one, another 6 weeks waiting for that payment, and the third month ended and was invoiced while I was chasing them by phone trying to correct what I thought was their mistake. Note that this was the first time I heard of this after several years of billing exactly to the minute, either it is something new or they are inconsistent about it. But the lady on the phone acted like it was something I should have known through common sense or something.
  • You can’t work for 6 hours straight without a lunch break. So, they penciled a lunch break into your schedule and didn’t pay you for the students you saw during that time. Why is this any of their business? We’re independent contractors, supposed to get paid for services provided – not employees whose every minute can be scheduled. If I want to eat a big breakfast and then see as many students as I can get in a day while just holding off until dinner, what right do they have to care? And again, if they do decide to care, they need to make this clear in advance instead of declining to pay for services already rendered.

Note that for the 15-minute and 6-hour policies (extra credit if you can find a book of these policies and share it with those who rightfully need to know), there is no way to get that money back. They said they’ve already processed the invoices, that month is closed on your case and there’s no going back – besides, they already know you saw the kid for 40 minutes at a time, so if you now claim otherwise, the untruth is rather transparent. As for the future, you can imagine the headaches involved in trying to fit a dozen kids’  schedules into 15-minute increments, especially if you work in a school where some periods are 40 or 50 minutes.

All I want to know is why they can’t just come out with a book of their policies and make it available to all contractors. This business is like telling students to do long division with decimals before teaching them how, and then waiting for them to finish before telling them that they got something wrong in the first step. Then you let them do it ALL over again before telling them that they got the second step wrong, too. Not nice.

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Part II: How the NYC DOE gets teachers to work for free (or cheap) Friday Finds: Teachers Pay Teachers

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