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‘The system failed him’: SF educator battled insurance glitches before dying from cancer

Jackie Alarcon posing with a photo of her late brother, Eddy Alarcon, at her office at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology on Wednesday, September 14, 2022 in San Francisco, Calif. Alarcon says health insurance snafus added to her brother’s stress while he was battling cancer. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

In July, several months into the San Francisco Unified School District’s disastrous payroll switch, one of its longtime paraeducators, Eddy Alarcon, underwent tests to get to the bottom of some recent health issues. 

That’s when the Mission District native—who had preexisting diabetes and high blood pressure—was informed he no longer had insurance despite still being employed by SFUSD. By the end of the month, with medical coverage still lapsed, Alarcon found out he had cancer, his sister Jackie Alarcon told The Standard. 

On Friday, Alarcon died suddenly after a trip to the emergency room. He was 64 years old.

Alarcon’s insurance was reinstated by early August, estimated to have been cut off in mid-June. It was also cut off in March, which he discovered as he went to pick up medication, and wasn’t restored until a few weeks later. Struggling to reinstate insurance with a cancer diagnosis and unable to properly tend to his sickness took a toll on Alarcon and his loved ones, Jackie said. 

“I really hate that during his worst moments, the system failed him and worried him,” said Jackie, who also teaches in SFUSD and was grappling with missing wages from the same payroll problems that caused her brother’s insurance woes. “That single thing created so much stress for him. He couldn’t even be sick.”

Alarcon is far from the only district employee hit by payroll and benefits issues since January, when SFUSD prematurely switched to a new system, EMPowerSF. The district tallied just over 1,000 cases in the first couple months, but more than nine months later, streams of educators and staff say they continue to have new and unresolved issues. 

At a special meeting on Wednesday, the Board of Education will vote on a new $2.8 million contract with a firm to clear the backlog of cases plaguing the understaffed payroll department

In June, the school board, at Superintendent Matt Wayne’s request, approved another increase to the original payroll contract with vendor Infosys—which may have been flawed or incomplete. That brought the total cost for the contract to $16.5 million.

SFUSD attributed the disaster to a lack of planning, staffing and communication among departments.

Teachers have repeatedly attested to the stress of attempting to monitor their paychecks, running into obstacles while trying to get their money or even a response, and continuing to teach on short-staffed campuses. The United Educators of San Francisco began collecting legal grievances last month to present to state officials.

UESF spokesperson Amanda Hart said in an email that the union is saddened by Alarcon’s loss. “He will be deeply missed by his school community,” she wrote. “Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this sad and difficult time.”

Eddy Alarcon, who died on Friday, September 9, 2022 after a cancer diagnosis, was a paraeducator in San Francisco Unified School District for more than 20 years. | Courtesy Jackie Alarcon

‘My Heart’s Broken’

Jackie remembers her brother as a huge fan of local sports teams. She said he was a loyal and kind-hearted son who stepped up to take care of their mother—a Lathrop resident who also taught in SFUSD—after her husband’s death. He also took care of Jackie when she was being treated for leukemia. 

Alarcon was beloved by students, Jackie continued. Some of the kids he knew since their middle school days even kept in touch with him after they graduated from the school district.

“He’s like the mama duck with all the little ducklings following him around,” Jackie said. “He didn’t take his lunch until the kids were settled. He was just really kind and loved. My heart’s broken.”  

A paraeducator of about 20 years who worked at James Lick Middle School, Alarcon decided not to teach during the summer to recover from a fall. He could have used his sick time but Jackie said he wanted to do the right thing by putting in notice so the students would have a replacement paraeducator in his absence.

The notice was mistakenly counted as termination, which led to a temporary cut to his benefits, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick confirmed.

“Our hearts go out to Mr. Alarcon’s friends, family members, and school community,” Dudnick said in an email. “We understand that issues have an impact on our employees, and we are actively working to address them as quickly as possible.”

Dudnick added that the team responded to his case the next business day and that he was informed he could still access his health benefits while the issue was being resolved. But not having a human to directly communicate with, to follow up with or call, was a huge frustration, Alarcon’s sister said.

“I wanted to hold someone accountable to what they were telling me, not a ticket number,” Jackie said. “It’s very impersonal. That’s the biggest problem right with our district.”

Alarcon is survived by his mother, nephew and godchildren.

Jackie Alarcon’s office at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology is filled with flowers and cards from students on Wednesday, September 14, 2022 in San Francisco. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard