At Central Oregon Community College, full time classified employees including librarians, technicians, maintenance workers and janitors, recently found themselves facing a payroll change that, although legal, is causing some dismay.
In March and April, approximately 115 COCC full-time, non-exempt hourly workers were forced to accommodate a payroll update which resulted in employees receiving just half of their paychecks spread out over two months to switch to a lag payroll system. If an employee usually receives a $2,000 monthly paycheck, then for March, they would have received $1,000. The shortfall will be made up when an employee leaves COCC—whenever that may be.
"I could tell you stories of COCC employees who qualified for food stamps, who were unable to purchase a home, who decided to retire early, who quit their job, who took out COCC loans with Mid Oregon Credit Union, and whose PERS retirement benefits (will) be adversely affected – as a direct result of the pay decreases in March and April," says a current COCC employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job.
This was no accounting error. Rather, it was a plan set in motion by the college a year ago, to move from what they say was an outdated timesheet model that worked on estimated pay to a more accurate real-time web model, known as a lag payroll system.
In an internal document obtained by the Source, a chart shows COCC's implementation of the system known as "Web Time Entry" which says that on March 15, "you will be paid for 88 hours (approximately half a paycheck), and a month later you will receive a paycheck for the remainder of March." Employees will receive a full paycheck for Aprils hours by May 15, resulting in a two week lag.
The document goes on to say that employees can better prepare for the change by "identifying any recurring and automatic billing payments, such as mortgage, bank or rent with due dates that may need to be adjusted."
"But since when is telling your landlord you'll be late on rent two months in a row a possibility?" says another COCC employee, "I mean, they expect our landlord, utility company, child's daycare, to just be compassionate and understanding that suddenly I only have half of my income? As if changing my due date was a real possibility? It's illogical but they make it sound like it's a possibility."
The COCC document also encouraged employees to "start setting money aside between now and March 2017 to help with the transition." As the COCC staff member pointed out, "most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck. We don't have extra income to just set aside." Further in the document, COCC states that "the College will make available the option to take extra payroll draws combined with the one-time use of up to 80 hours...of the employee's accrued vacation to soften the impact of the change."
"Yeah, that was very gracious of them," says a worker, "I get paid my vacation and still have to work. So if I wanted to take any paid time off this year, I wouldn't be able to. It's kind of bananas."
An interview request with David Dona, chief financial officer at COCC, went unanswered. However, Ron Paradis, the executive director of college relations, defends the change, stating, "We do know that this was an inconvenience. We understand that and acknowledge that. We were still using paper timesheets. It was a really inefficient system. So employees were being paid at the end of the month for the current month with an estimated hours worked. We would have to go back the following month and make adjustments for any time off, overtime, etc.
"It did result in a lag period for employees for the first month. We did allow them to borrow against their upcoming paycheck for a six-month period, so that someone could spread out the lack of pay," he continued. Paradis also pointed to an employee going to the Mid Oregon Credit Union where they obtained a six percent rate loan.
COCC employees, however, note that this was because the college failed to provide a no-interest loan of its own. "Other colleges and cities that also dealt with new lag payroll systems...offered transition loans or no-interest loans to affected employees," says the COCC employee. "When asked to do the same, COCC refused to offer either transitions loans (to be repaid as a deduction from final paychecks when employees leave COCC) or no-interest loans."
Paradis states, "We do understand there was an extra two weeks, but we did give a number of options... They could take some overtime and it would cover it, they could take some vacation time to cover it, borrow against their paycheck that would cover it, etc. A combination of things."
When asked why the college didn't decide to grandfather in current employees to mitigate the lag in payroll, Paradis noted that although that option was discussed, it "would have required two different sets of payroll processing. And we have employees that stay here for a long period of time, 20-30 years, so that would have been a long time."
Lani Sykes, the president of the COCC Classified Association, notes the strain this has put on the classified members. "This academic year has been an incredibly tumultuous one for the majority of our members," she says. "The lag payroll system, aka web time entry, did nothing for the classified employees of COCC, except cause many of them financial hardships."
The Classified Association is due to enter negotiations regarding future employment contracts with the college. "Going forward into negotiations, all we ask is that we're treated fairly and openly, with respect and recognition, as we are the foundation of the college. We want to trust that all counter proposals will be submitted with professionalism and in accordance with good faith bargaining."
An unidentified Classified employee sums up the situation, saying: "It's uncomfortable for staff to complain publicly about the pay cuts. We don't want to be identified as complainers or disloyal employees. We could lose our jobs."
She continues, "The college's actions and reluctance to adopt measures to reduce the effects of wage cuts may be legal but it gives a negative message to affected employees and sets a dangerous precedent."