Coffee heat rising

Why keep your pay statements, and how

Recently My Dollar Plan told the story of a family member whose employer, in her early years on the job, neglected to withhold her retirement contributions. Fifteen years on, the accounting department noticed. In the discussion that ensued, she offered to contribute the unpaid amount but was told all would be fine, not to worry. Now, after thirty years in the salt mine, she retires, thinking indeed all is fine. But noooo…now they tell her that her retirement fund is not funded adequately to support her in her dotage.

This is big. Not just for the poor soul who’s looking at a lengthy struggle over this and the possibility of an impoverished retirement, but for all of us. The trend to outsource payroll to companies for whom employees are just so many numbers—or, if living entities at all, sheep to be sheared—distances workers from employers who have to look them in the eye. So does the increasing use of electronic systems that function more or less unobserved by human beings. The potential for error is much higher, and the potential for errors never to be noticed grows by the day.

A year or so ago, the Great Desert University turned over its payroll (and just about everything else having to do with sheepherding personnel management) to PeopleSoft. A huge fiasco ensued. Supposedly by the turn of the year everything was straightened out, and on the surface things have appeared to be running smoothly ever since.

Then we had the last round of layoffs. A number of the most recent cannees had worked in maintenance and support jobs for decades.

One benefit of working for Our Great State is that your sick leave hours accrue separately from vacation hours. Over the years, if you’re lucky enough to stay healthy or you come to work when you’re ill, a lot of sick leave hours pile up. After you reach 500 hours, the state will pay you 30 percent of your hourly pay rate as severance pay when you leave employment. Stash 1,000 hours, and that rate jumps to 50 percent of hourly pay. As you can imagine, this adds up nicely. At the moment, for example, if GDU lays me off today, OGS will owe me $16,500.

When the most recent RIFed workers applied to HR for payment reflecting their accrued unused sick leave hours, they were told they had none. PeopleSoft had no record of their sick leave balances. None.

Well. Of course, in the absence of their entire archive of back pay stubs, there’s no way for any of the laid-off workers to prove how much sick leave they earned, how much they had used, and how much remained for the state to pay.

This is why it’s crucial to keep copies of every pay stub or statement you get. If your pay statements are posted online instead of being delivered to you in hard copy, print them out and keep them in a fire-proof file cabinet. You should also be able to copy them to disk as PDFs, a good back-up, especially if you have electronic storage space somewhere other than at your house.

Keep these permanently. Never throw them away.

Not only that, but you should check every paycheck carefully for accuracy and completeness. During the Great PeopleSoft Fiasco, I received eight paychecks whose gross or net income figures were wrong. Twice, PeopleSoft failed to withhold my contribution to my retirement fund, and three times it failed to make GDU’s contribution. When accounting for my vacation hours disappeared, I was informed that—after 15 years of working for this fine institution—I was ineligible for vacation time. When, after weeks of squawking on my part, they decided to fix this, they got the figures wrong time after time after time. They got my sick leave figures wrong, they got my federal withholding wrong. And finally, come January, they got my W-2 wrong, too.

How do I know? Because when I realized what a mess they were making of things, I started keeping track of each item on my paycheck in an Excel spreadsheet:121008payrollerrorsThese figures, of which you see only a small part, came in mighty handy every time I had to send yet another written complaint to HR and to the Dean’s office over the mess PeopleSoft was making of my pay.

I knew the W-2 was wrong and that the error was in my favor, but not being an accountant, I couldn’t prove it and had no idea how to identify the errors. On the advice of my lawyer, I decided to let it go; it’s the employer’s responsibility to get the tax withholding right, and I was assured that I would have no liability if an IRS audit (which GDU and PeopleSoft richly deserved) showed irregularities in the W-2.

But…the discovery that the university was blithely distributing W-2’s that PeopleSoft knew to be in error (we actually were told this, and told we should calculate the correct figures ourselves!) led me to realize I’d better do more in Quicken than just enter my net pay. Starting on January 1, I began to enter a split entry for each paycheck, showing the gross payment less each deduction:121008splitentry

This, of course, is a gigantic pain in the buns that adds extra work time to my bookkeeping. However, I suspect it will be worth it.

For one thing, I discovered another error in a paycheck, which PeopleSoft never could account for. And for another, my annual Quicken category report will print out totals for each of the items shown in the split entry, making it easy for my tax lawyer to compare the actual income, deduction, and withholding figures with whatever appears on next January’s W-2.

Those are short-term issues. But the long-term issues could add up to something much more significant.

If Dollar Plan’s relative and GDU’s RIFed workers had kept records like these, they’d have a potent weapon in their fight with their employers. That would make it well worth the extra time and effort it takes to review your paycheck carefully and keep a running record of everything that has to do with it.

A$king and re¢eiving

“A$k and ye shall re¢eive” is the motto of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, to which I used to belong until I figured out that freelance writing is a losing proposition. ASJA put me on to the fact that publishers don’t pay a fair rate for work done; they pay what they know they can get away with. They bank on the tendency of writers to work in their own little garrets, to cultivate social lives best described as null and void, and to be way too shy to ask other writers how much they earn. Magazine publishers in particular will pay one writer, say, $1.00 a word and another 50¢ or 75¢ for the same kind of work of the same quality. They recognize that some wannabe writers are so anxious to see their bylines in print they not only would work for free, they’d pay the magazine to publish them, and so the magazine plays that for all it’s worth. Which is plenty.

Entertainingly, today I learned that book publishers will do something similar when they outsource editorial work. My young business partner (late one of my research assistants) and I have been proofreading detective novels for a company that publishes nothing but mystery fiction. Because the work is easy and the copy so entertaining it’s hard to believe anyone would pay you to read it, we’ve been accepting the publisher’s offered rate of $12 an hour.

In response to our talking up our new enterprise, The Copyeditor’s Desk,a book packaging company e-mailed me and asked our rates for proofreading. Without thinking about the mystery publisher, I gave her a rate on the very lowest end of what I actually expect to earn: $25 an hour. Proofreading does not rise to the level of rocket science, and so I couldn’t reasonably ask for the amount I try to get by manipulating my copyediting page rate to fit the difficulty of the copy: $60 an hour. But on the other hand, there comes a point where you can’t just give it away. I figured $25 would be a bit rich for her blood.

To my astonishment, she wrote back and said our proposed rate was in the range of what they’ve been paying others.

Whoa! You are paying proofreaders twenty-five bucks an hour? You’re paying more than twice what we’ve been earning reading mystery novels? Are we talkin’ the same people who have the skills you could have expected from a bright high-school graduate a quarter-century ago?

Huh. Wonder what they would have paid if I’d suggested their arcane interior decorating books need a proofreader with a Ph.D. to make them right. . .

So the message is this: Don’t be shy about asking what you think your time is worth. If you don’t get it, maybe it’s for the best: the next client or employer will come up to your standards. And find out, even if it means bald-facedly asking colleagues what they earn, how much others in your trade or profession are earning for similar work.
Ignoran¢e is not bli$$.

No kidding?

News flash! Researchers have discovered that, when it comes to job satisfaction, money matters more than a warm-fuzzy boss or an office decorated like a fern bar. “Conventional wisdom,” we’re told, has it that a pleasant environment and an understanding boss are more important to worker happiness than compensation.

New York Times columnist Paul Brown, citing the results of a survey reported in Family Business Agenda, reveals the top five keys to job satisfaction:

  • Pay
  • Benefits
  • Job security
  • Flexibility to balance work and life issues
  • Ability to communicate effectively with management

I have to allow that the Great Desert University has given me and my staff some mighty nice office space, as campus space goes. It’s in an old building called back out of condemnation, but IMHO much nicer than the proud new concrete and glass blocks the more privileged occupy: we get a big atrium full of tropical plants with an amazing flowering tree right outside our window. And for that we are all grateful.

The decent health insurance and the generous vacation allowance go a long way toward encouraging me to stay on the job, as does the fact that the university has a policy that encourages telecommuting. So does my low-key dean, who does not micromanage but stays out of the way so I can do my job effectively.

Ah, but yes, money matters. The late great switch from bimonthly to biweekly pay did nothing for my morale, nor did I notice any of my staff dedicating a dance to spring to the wisdom of this decision. Twenty weeks of incorrect paychecks didn’t help much, either. And when Barack Obama proposed to exempt the low-income elderly from taxes and then defined “low income” as exactly my salary, well . . . that was alarming. If I were ten or fifteen years younger, I’d be looking for another job right now.

Because Arizona is a right-to-work state, pay is relatively low compared to other urbanized American states. For educators, this phenomenon is enhanced by the fact that the legislature has historically underfunded education.

GDU has justified its pauperly salaries by telling prospective faculty that living in a resort climate is worth the difference, and besides, it’s less costly to live here because you don’t have to buy all those winter clothes. (Yeah. Recruiters have actually said that with a straight face!) But the truth is, the cost of living in the Phoenix metropolitan area-the fifth-largest city in the country-is no lower than in other major U.S. cities, with the exception of grand urbs such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle. Prices for housing within reasonable driving distance of work are comparable to or higher than housing prices in most large cities. Gas is almost $3 a gallon. Food is expensive, and because sprawl has run most farmers out of business, pickings are mighty slim in farmer’s markets. The cost of one power company’s electricity is said to be the highest in the nation. So while salaries are low, it’s no cheaper to live here than in places where pay is better. To my mind, that translates to “lower standard of living.”

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could conclude otherwise, or fail to see how much money matters.
Am I all wet? What keeps you on your job? And what do you see as the greatest contributor to your job satisfaction?