Funny about Money

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. ―Edmund Burke

Another fun day at Human Resources

It’s probably my mistake. Most things are. Whatever, when I showed up yesterday morning at Human Resources for the required meeting for exiting retirees, I was told that the meeting wasn’t yesterday; it was Wednesday.

Now, I would swear the woman who made the appointment for me was on the phone when I had the calendar in hand, and that I said, as I always do, “Let me confirm that…” But maybe not. Maybe I wrote it down on Thursday and just imagined I entered it on Wednesday.

This created a double inconvenience: The pointless 44-mile round-trip trudge out there (where I have nothing to do other than pack up some more of my junk and haul it out to the car), and then, because they sent a packet of information through the campus mail, another pointless round trip in the next day or two to pick that up.

Swallowing my fury, I remarked to the woman at the reception desk that I had some questions that I haven’t been able to get answered. In the conversation that ensued, it developed that she was the very person who had made this pointless appointment for me—and, we may add, so far the only one who seems to have made some sense over the telephone. She was sitting at the front desk because, thanks to the layoffs, they’re so short-handed they don’t have enough staff to run the office properly. At any rate, she offered to answer said questions.

You understand: in dealing with HR what you get is a passel of information that you already know. Whatever they tell you is a) boilerplate and b) already on their website. But when you have a real question, one that isn’t answered on their website, they don’t know the answer. Consequently, they either tell you they don’t know and they don’t really know where you can find out, or they give you an answer that’s wrong.

For example, the last time I was out there (and I do mean out: HR’s offices are way to the south of the huge campus. It’s too far away to walk, and the parking lot is permit-only, so that employees have to pay to park there or take a chance on getting a whopping ticket)…the last time I was out there, I was told that the proposed December 31 canning day would get me in under the wire for the discounted COBRA.

Without the discount on COBRA, my health insurance premium will jump from $26 a month to something over $600. With it, the premium will be somewhat less than Medicare, around $185. Not really affordable, but at least attainable, more or less.

Yesterday the HR lady read the rules for the discounted COBRA closely (isn’t that a quaint idea?) and concluded that what I’d been told was wrong. My benefits actually have to have stopped before the 31st. So, she proposed, I need to ask the Dean’s office to can me significantly sooner. She suggested the 11th—arbitrarily, because some other disgruntled retiree had chosen that day at yesterday’s meeting.

I informed her that Social Security will not deliver a benefit check before the middle of February, even though it “starts” (snark!!) in January, and that they refused to “start” it in December so that I can get some money in my bank account in January, because I’m earning a salary in December that would trigger the 50 percent penalty for working while drawing SS. I pointed out that I will have a difficult enough time living for a month and a half with no income, and that there’s no way I can manage that for something like two months.

Then she decided I probably could get away with it by having them can me on the 27th, the date of the last paycheck of the month. But, she said, I’ll have to get the Dean’s office a) to do that (meaning I have to get that bureaucracy off the dime) and b) I have to get those people to state that I’m being terminated involuntarily (even though in fact what’s happening is they’ve arranged to have my contract stop then, and it’s entirely possible the government will argue that not renewing a contract is different from firing a regular worker).

Then I asked how I get my money out of the 403(b) plans to roll it into my IRA. She didn’t know. She said I had to call Fidelity and TIAA-Cref, and she did not know how to reach a human being at either outfit.

So I asked what is the minimum amount I’m required to leave in the plan in order to be regarded as “retired” over the next three years so that I can get my accrued sick leave payments, which are doled out over a three-year period. She didn’t know. She said I needed to call the state’s general accounting office.

I asked if benefits are taken out of our vacation pay, and if so, did that mean my health care insurance would be extended over the month or so of time for which GDU owes me. She said she believed that the health insurance stopped on the termination day, but she wasn’t sure. She called a payroll clerk up to the front, to discuss this question.

That woman said that the only thing that was taken out of back vacation pay was state and federal taxes, but that the federal tax bite would be 25 percent, and that your benefits stop on the day you are terminated. I asked why the tax rate was so high. She said that was just the rules. Then she said the state tax deduction would be over 30 percent, because that’s what I put on my A-4 form. (I did? Well, that explains why I keep getting such large state tax refunds). I said that would mean they would be grabbing over half my pay!

She said no, by “30 percent” she meant the state takes 30 percent of the federal tax. Then she said it was possible to elect a slightly smaller bite. I said I would like to do that. So she produced a new A-4, which is the same as a W-4 only for the state of Arizona. The lowest amount I could select was 21.1 percent.

By the time I walked out of there, steam was shooting out of my ears.

These developments—assuming they’re true—represent substantial more hassle, substantial more uncertainty, and four fewer days of pay: $960 less than I thought I would get!!!!!

The bright spot is that I’ll net a little more in vacation pay than the $3186 I expected: $3670. Not much—$486 less than the $960 I’ll lose by moving my termination day forward—but better than yet another hit on the head.

Moving on, I tried to contact the college’s business office manager, cc-ing my dean, and was told that she’s out until next Monday. So now all this complicated mess has to hang fire until then, and then hang fire still longer until she gets around to answering me. By then I will have forgotten some of the details and also will be engaged in dealing with other messes.

Today, whenever it gets to be business hours, I’ve got to track down the woman I found at GAO and find out just how little cash I’m allowed to leave in the 403(b) without losing my RASL payment.

Then, somewhere, somehow (I have no idea where or how) I’ve got to find someone who understands enough about COBRA to confirm or deconfirm whether I really have to sacrifice $960 of pay in order to keep my health insurance premiums in a range that I can even remotely afford to pay.

What I don’t understand is that, assuming the HR lady is right in thinking I have to be off the payroll before December 31 because my benefits would extend to that day, why can’t I be canned on December 30, thereby losing only $240 worth of pay? The rule says “eligible for COBRA” and the last day on which you may have been canned is the 31st.

She interprets “eligible for COBRA” as meaning not only that you were canned involuntarily but that your benefits have stopped. In her view, because my benefits would still be in force on the 31st, and because GDU will have to not pay me for the extra four days after the December 27 payday until the first payday in January 2010, those two things together will make me ineligible for the discount. I don’t think so: I think the rule says you may have been canned as late as the 31st. If she’s right that hanging onto my job until the 31st makes me ineligible for the discount but letting them can me on the 27th makes me eligible, then by that reasoning (if “reasoning” it can be called), I should still be eligible on the 30th. IMHO, I should be eligible on the 31st, but I’m willing to forego $240 (less tax, less benefits, less every other gouge GDU can think of) to keep my insurance premiums “down” to a mere $186 a month.

So far, I’ve been unable to find anyone, anywhere who can explain this rule. Most of the HR people barely know it exists at all, and they certainly don’t understand its fine points.

Jayzus Aitch Keerist on a crutch! Is it any wonder I’m grinding my teeth until they break?

Author: funny

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  1. I hardly understand any of this stuff. I have a colleague who is still working at 67. I swear it’s because it seems easier to keep going than to figure out all the HR/SS/etc stuff.

    One thing I THINK I read–could it be true?–is that the SS penalty isn’t permanent–you get the money back at a later date. I forget where I read this. Perhaps you could check it out–it seems too good to be true.

  2. Yes. The money that’s taken away from you isn’t exactly lost & gone forever…at least, that’s my understanding. As we know, my understanding is worth what you paid for it.

    If I’m following what various functionaries have explained, the right hand takes and the left hand returns. The money that’s subtracted from your SS because you earn “too much” apparently is credited toward your benefit at “full” retirement age. I gather that at that time, they rejigger the payment, figuring in the amounts they’ve taken back during the time you were working. Thus it could increase your “full” payment, although one CSR remarked that it would not bring it up to the amount you would have had if you had delayed starting SS at your “full retirement” age.

    Your colleague would have reached “full” age at 65 or 66. This means that now she or he can draw down SS with no penalty at all for any amount earned in the workplace. It’s gravy, and could (in theory) be stashed into one’s savings instruments to support one in one’s old age. Or used to spend the summer in the south of France.

    Another little-known factoid I’ve heard is that you can repay the amount that was paid out to you between an “early” start and your attainment of “full” retirement age. When you do this, a) the government returns the taxes you paid on it, and b) SS will reset your payments to the amount you’re entitled to just as though you had never started early.

  3. Ok, I’m almost completely confused, but what I do know is that my employment, coverage, benefits and all ended on June 30th. I was still eligible for COBRA + ARRA (subsidy) so I’m not sure what the fuss between the 27th, the 30th and the 31st is. What I mean is, if the boilerplate/mandate states that your coverage has to end before the 31st instead of the 30th, then why end employment on the 27th? If it helps at all, I can send you the PDF of the information they sent me about COBRA after the canning. Some is obviously specific to my former employer, but some might be a little helpful in untangling your legalese? Let me know if you want it.

  4. As it develops, this is all another tempest in a teapot, blown up by the incompetence of GDU’s HR staff. What the woman told me was 100 percent wrong. I have an update to write… 😉

  5. I also work for Arizona State (which, unless I’m mistaken, has got to be the Great Desert University). In my experience, the people in HR don’t know anything other than what’s posted on their website. That is the sum total of their understanding. If they know anything else, they’re not authorized to tell people.

    You have to go to the state offices to get straight answers, assuming any of them are still staffed. Assuming you can figure out which is the right state office to ask.

    Good luck!