Merced resident Florentino Garcia is experiencing financial hardships, not because he's unemployed, but because he hasn't gotten paid for his work.
The 78-year-old has been a local provider for the In-Home Supportive Services program since 1976. The program pays people to perform various duties for the elderly and disabled so they can remain in their homes.
Garcia, who has three clients, primarily cleans their houses, washes their clothes and takes them to doctors' appointments. He earns about $1,000 a month for the services he provides, income he uses to supplement his Social Security benefits.
But he hasn't been paid for the work he's done for one of his clients for six weeks or for his work for his two other clients for two weeks, he said.
"It's been terrible," he said. I'm "real nervous because there's bills I haven't paid and it bothers me, you know."
Garcia is among several providers in Merced County who are experiencing difficulties as a result of a new payroll system that the state launched a few months ago.
Steve Mehlman, communications manager for the United Domestic Workers Homecare Providers union, said the state has rolled out the system in three pilot counties: Mer- ced, Yolo and San Diego.
"It has been an unmitigated disaster," he said.
The time sheets that providers must fill out are different, he said. Many providers don't have their new employee identification numbers, among other things.
As a result a lot of the time sheets are rejected and sent back to the providers, Mehlman said, and the counties are getting slammed with phone calls from them.
"This is just not a bureaucratic matter," he said. "These people aren't getting paid. We have people who have not been paid since August."
The affected workers are not people who can fall back on their savings, Mehlman said. They make about $9 an hour. "It has created serious hardships for these folks," he said.
What's frightening, he said, is that the state plans to roll out the system to the larger counties Dec. 4.
"We are strongly recommending that the state put a hold on this at the moment, and go back and take a look at the system and see what can be done to alleviate this problem," he said.
"We want to let people know that there's suffering going on, and we need to fix these issues."
Fewer complaints heard
Kadou Xiong, organizer with the United Domestic Workers office in Merced, said it represents roughly 2,200 providers in the county.
Xiong said they have been hearing some complaints about the new pay system, but the volume of complaints varies from day to day. Providers primarily are having trouble with paychecks not arriving on time, forcing them to make late bill payments, she said.
"For the most part they had issues in the past, but not as many cases," she said. "Maybe one or two, but not so many at the same time."
Nancy Reding, manager for the Merced County IHSS Public Authority, declined to comment earlier this week. Officials at the Merced County Human Services Agency said they wouldn't be able to comment until Monday.
Lisa Contreras, spokeswoman for the San Diego Department of Health and Human Services Agency, said there are about 21,000 individual providers in the county.
Some of the challenges San Diego County has encountered with the new system include the time sheets being more difficult to complete. She said they are scanned at the state level and require additional work at the local level, which can create delays in payments for the providers.
"We've seen a 97 percent increase in our call volumes since going live with the new system," Contreras said in an e-mail.
State working on a fix
Karen Keeslar, executive director of the California Association of Public Authorities for IHSS, said there was a meeting Thursday afternoon to try to address the problems with the new $300 million zero-error time sheet system.
She said her group has been frustrated for months, but the meeting was a positive step.
"I think that the state is listening and they are looking to expedite the issues," she said, adding that they recommended the state simplify the time sheet as opposed to training the 385,000 or providers in the state.
"These are very low-income workers who are caring for seniors and people with disabilities, the most vulnerable people in society," she said.
There are about 440,000 people statewide who used these providers, she said.
The pay system that the state was using was very old, so it needed an update, Keeslar said. As with any new system, she said, officials expected to see some problems, but not this many.
Keeslar said that from Thursday's meeting she got the impression state officials are leaning toward waiting to roll out the system to the next group of 10 counties, scheduled for December, until the problems are fixed, but there was no decision.
"They have to slow down and get those problems fixed before they move forward," she said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.