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COVID-19 causes payroll issue for EWU employees

by Tia Lyons | January 16, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.

City officials posed questions and concerns about a payroll issue that affected the process by which some El Dorado Water Utilities employees received their paychecks Friday and one El Dorado City Council member has called for an internal investigation.

The matter started with a positive coronavirus (COVID-19) test among the EWU’s administrative staff earlier this week, resulting in several employees, including the payroll clerk/specialist, being sent home and a one-day shutdown of the EWU office, said Robert Edmonds, director of public works.

On Friday, Council Member Dianne Hammond sent an email to Edmonds, other city officials and EWU administrative staff members saying that she had received complaints from several employees who said their paychecks had not been deposited directly into their bank accounts by Friday morning.

“This has caused a huge inconvenience for our employees. Would you give the reason for this in order to avoid this situation in the future?” Hammond asked.

Edmonds explained that several EWU office employees were sent home Tuesday after one tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week.

Four employees who had been contact with the staff member who tested positive were quarantined while awaiting COVID tests and the EWU office was closed the following day.

One of the employees who was quarantined was the payroll/personnel clerk, who had requested to complete the payroll process remotely so that employees could receive their paychecks Friday.

Edmonds said that when he learned that the payroll process had previously been completed remotely with the city’s firewall protection system, he sought a legal opinion from City Attorney Henry Kinslow.

“With payroll, there’s a lot of sensitive information and he (Kinslow) said no, don’t do that. Payroll needs to be done behind the city’s firewall,” Edmonds said, adding that the remote work posed a security issue.

“After seeking a legal opinion, I agree this was the correct decision,” he said.

Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer said the payroll specialist was advised by her supervisors to provide her log-in credentials for the city’s accounting system to the EWU’s business administration manager, who certifies payroll calculations before checks are issued, to complete payroll calculations and certify them.

Smith-Creer said the payroll specialist was reluctant to forward her passcode and expressed her own concerns about potential security issues.

The mayor said she also learned that the payroll clerk was asked to leave the EWU office a couple of hours before payroll calculations were completed on Tuesday.

“I agreed with her not giving them her passcode. If she had to leave before she could finish payroll and not do her job, then (the business administration manager) should have been able to finish it as a supervisor without (the payroll specialist’s) credentials,” Creer-Smith said.

“Her supervisors should have had everything they needed before she was asked to leave,” she reiterated.

The EWU office on South Washington Avenue reopened Thursday and Friday with a skeleton crew, Edmonds said. He apologized to local residents for any inconvenience that may have arisen from the closure Wednesday.

He said printed checks were issued to all employees on Friday and they were allowed time Friday morning to cash and deposit the checks into their accounts.

“We did the best we could. The directs deposits usually show up on Thursday night. The only option we had left was to print paper checks. That was the best option we were allowed to exercise,” said Edmonds.

Another option, he said, was to send John Peppers, EWU general manager, to the bank and add to the list of eligible employees who could certify payroll calculations, but that option was blocked by COVID-19.

“He was one of the ones who got sent home this week. He did take a test and it was negative and he will have to take another one Monday to see if he can come back into the office,” Edmonds said.

Smith-Creer contended that EWU supervisors should have sought legal advice prior to Edmonds learning about the matter and informed employees they would be receiving paper paychecks this week.

Council Member Paul Choate weighed in with an email, writing, “What I see here is a failure of an employee to properly respond to her supervisor by failing to provide the necessary information (a password) to be able to process payroll as it has been done for some time.”

Choate also insisted that completing the payroll process remotely, without the proper security measures, could have placed the city’s accounting software system at risk.

“Whoever instructed (the payroll clerk) to do so is also to blame for this breakdown in properly securing confidential information,” he said. “We depend on the water company employees to perform their duties and they expect to receive their compensation and we have failed to do so in the manner they have grown accustomed to.”

Council Member Judy Ward agreed with Choate and called on Edmonds to “thoroughly investigate” the matter.

Edmonds said the matter will be addressed when the full EWU administrative staff returns to the office.

“Obviously, we need more than one person is who certified to do payroll, not just because of COVID, but it could be the flu or sickness in the family or anything,” he said.

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