Two years of issues and continued mistrust of the Maricopa Community College District officials and previous Governing Board—Maricopa faculty now hit with another problem—a second payroll error ‘fiasco’


Brian Palm

Tuesday’s Governing Board Meeting. Maricopa Community College District

Brian Palm and Jesse Tannous

The Maricopa Community College District…specifically, this time, the HR payroll system is making life difficult for many faculty and staff…again.

For two years the Maricopa district officials from the Governing Board of 2018 that voted to strip faculty of their “meet and confer”—or shared governance rights, to the decision of that same board to halt residential faculty contracts (RFP) —to the recent nine-college majority vote of ‘no confidence’ in the current Maricopa Community College Chancellor, Maria Harper-Marinick, Maricopa faculty have seen one problem after another. Each one proving to be another slam against them.

These issues have essentially drained any confidence that many faculty and staff may have had in district officials—beginning at the top.

The latest setback for Maricopa faculty—another payroll malfunction.

Reportedly, more than 1,000 summer faculty and staff were alerted within the past 10 days that Maricopa HR had produced a summer payroll error.

This has become a familiar scenario to faculty and staff when just a year ago the payroll management system from Maricopa Human Resources produced errors that are still affecting people’s lives and paychecks when many faculty members were either underpaid or overpaid.

Several faculty members alerted Northeast Valley News after this latest error to report that the district in some cases is individually threatening various faculty with collection notices for monies from the first payroll error. But several faculty and staff say that the numbers the district claims are due— cannot be reconciled. At least one faculty member who spoke with us has retained an attorney and with this latest summer payroll error there is talk of a class action lawsuit among some faculty.

“I simply do not trust anything about my paycheck anymore or the system that we are supposed to rely on for our earnings. The deductions, the amount of sick pay—my actual pay…nothing is reliable anymore. This institution is a fiasco,” said one faulty member who requested anonymity over fear of retaliation.

This same faculty member was also recently contacted by Maricopa HR and told that there were issues with over payment on summer payroll.

Summer faculty and employees were recently contacted when paychecks were incorrect due to a “system” failure—but adding to the frustration was a notice from district officials that these employees would see a deduction (in some cases) of $507. 63 on their July paycheck.

At the Maricopa Governing Board meeting Tuesday night, the payroll issue was addressed when Faculty Association President Keith Heffner and two faculty members were allowed to address the board—an item not on the scheduled agenda.

Northeast Valley News was at the meeting when Heffner and two other Maricopa faculty members, Steven Peist of Estrella College, Division Chair of Modern Languages and Pam Duty of Phoenix College, English second year residential faculty, approached the board about the recent payroll errors and deductions and explained what this has done to faculty morale and confidence…once again.

Heffner’s frustration was clear as well as the passionate pleas from the other faculty members that included a, “how can faculty be expected to trust?” characterization of the district, its officials and the HR payroll system that faculty must rely on for their livelihood.

After the meeting, Heffner told that these errors have been happening for over 18 months and it was supposed to be “fixed.”

“The reason this has set off a firestorm—is at the beginning of the summer semester, the first pay period, some residential faculty were paid at the old load rate—it’s like $100 less or so.  It was caught by faculty, they fixed it right away, they were aware of the situation,” Heffner said.

“A few weeks later—we’re getting information from faculty, discovering that they are not accruing any sick leave for their summer work. And then now—as of Sunday—faculty are contacting me saying, ‘‘I’m seeing my ASRS is not being taken out of my paycheck, ’Heffner said.

“Every two weeks since the summer semester began…two weeks—two weeks—now! Three things in a row that are glitches that affect our payroll,” Heffner said. “There’s absolutely no trust right now. Why hasn’t administration approached this?  They knew all about it—we’re done.”

We asked Heffner what he believed his address to the board as well as the two others hoped to accomplish by speaking.

“It’s simple,” Heffner said, “Basically bringing a human face in front of the board to say ‘this is affecting a lot of us’—We wanted to give a voice to faculty, to say in front of the Board, ‘If you’re not really aware that these things happened, you are now,’ So what we wanted to do was get it on the record, in front of the governing board, on MCTV so when it comes out it will be part of the documentation,” Heffner said.

This same sentiment was echoed last week when several faculty members contacted Northeast Valley News with similar complaints and with the hope that information would go public.

One faculty member told about a district email thread from faculty representing most of the ten colleges that went on for several days. The emails reveal shock, frustration and anger over new errors in their payroll and some faculty were quite vivid in their email exchanges over what appeared to be a systemic problem at Maricopa.

Northeast Valley News spoke with Matt Hasson, District Communications Director after the Tuesday Board meeting and Hasson offered to answer a few questions about the payroll issue and to contact him.

Hasson was contacted by Northeast Valley News about setting up an an interview and while Hasson did not personally field questions about the payroll issue, he facilitated an interview with both Elliot Hibbs, the Chief Operations Officer for Maricopa and Martha Anderson, Associate Chief Human Resource Officer.

The interview took place Thursday afternoon.

Hasson, Hibbs and Anderson were present in the room during the telephone interview with Northeast Valley News.

The full interview…


Northeast Valley News: Why has this second round of payroll issues occurred?

Hibbs: “The new payroll system was put in in February of 2018.  When that was implemented, there were numerous errors in that system that caused pay to be incorrect for many months and struggles to get all that corrected.  The people that were around then are not really here anymore.  New people have been brought in to help us fix all of that and they worked tirelessly through all of the rest of 2018 and actually stabilized the system so that as of January and then through this last payroll run, the system had been 99% +, correct in the calculation of employee pay.”

“So we really felt that the problems of this significance probably were behind us.  Even when we had fixed the bulk of the system there had continued to be other system changes that were necessary, but we had work-arounds for those that prevented them from causing an employee any pay problem.  In addition, we had provided the faculty, in particular, with an explanation every pay period of their load factor so that they could see what their pay should be and help make sure that it was accurate.  So again—for the 12 pay periods prior to this one—pay was 99% + accurate,”

“What happened this time—and it’s the only time that this will happen—is we were fixing one of those remaining problems that we had previously had “work-arounds” for and we do testing to make sure that each one of those is going to work before we put it into production.  The testing clearly demonstrated that it would work—but when it came around to production, the sequence of production got out of order—and so while the change went in—it should have gone in before the pay sheets were prepared.  But in fact, pay sheets were prepared and then the system fix was applied and it should have been applied prior to the pay sheet.   In the future this will not be a problem because it’s now part of the system and will always be ahead of the pay sheets each pay period.”

Northeast Valley News:  So if I’m understanding correct, this last series of issues was caused not only by a software issue but also maybe a personnel situation?  (paraphrased)

Hibbs:  “Well—ahh—yes.  I mean I think there were both— It was no longer a system issue—we really fixed the system issue—and if the sequence had been right this would not have been a problem at all.  So the bottom line is that whoever ran the process for determining the pay didn’t run the sequence correctly.”

Northeast Valley News: Why were some faculty recently sent a letter saying they were overpaid a certain amount and then a couple days later told they owed a different amount?

Anderson: “I was responsible for sending out that communication. The initial numbers I got from my team were incorrect.  So as the emails were going out and I was getting responses back from faculty with questions—then I myself went in and looked.  Immediately, upon finding the error, I stopped emails from going out.”

{Anderson went on to explain that within 45 minutes an email was sent apologizing to those who received incorrect information and the correct figures were sent out the following day after being check four times}

Anderson: “The problem was within a formula that the initial person who used didn’t function all the way through the way that they thought it did and that’s the reason it was picking up more money than they actually owed.”

{Anderson recaps the timeline again}

Northeast Valley News:  How come faculty was being required to pay back the ASRS deduction all in one paycheck?

Hibbs: “The whole issue—the problem that was caused in the last payroll had to do with deductions—and it had to do with Arizona State Retirement System—retirement, long-term disability and then if employees also had any deferred compensation that they were making—and it had to do with only certain aspects of jobs.  For example, if there was a faculty member that had on their 12-month contract, were getting their regular pay, but then they also had a secondary job—it would have been the secondary job in which the deduction was not taken.  The primary job, it was still taken.  But ASRS is the major deduction that was not taken and that’s 11.6, 11.7% of an employee’s pay.  So it is a significant amount of money.  The fact is, the employee received that additional amount of money that they should not have received—and so what we’re trying to do is to get that money back so it can be attributed it to their state retirement account—and we are required by law to not divide(?)or provide(?) overpayments and if we do, get that money back as well as make sure it gets to the retirement system correctly so that the employee is credited with those contributions when it comes around to their retirement.”

Anderson: “To add to what Elliot said—this affected one pay period—last pay period.  So they are not being asked to pay back money that was not collected over multiple times.  It is one pay period they are asking to be paid back.”

Northeast Valley News: Are you aware of any schools or organizations that use this software that are having similar issues?

Hibbs: “I don’t know of any others that are having these kind of issues.  I would tell you that I’m certainly aware of many other organizations that have implemented payroll systems over the years that have had major problems with their systems.”

Northeast Valley News: How confident is the district that the payroll issues are cleared up?

Hibbs: “I’m willing to say that—and I think the demonstration of the last 12 pay periods prior to this one would suggest exactly that.  Now, I will continue to say that there are other work-arounds that we continue to do to protect the pay of our employees and to make sure that it’s as accurate as absolutely possible.  So there are going to be further software changes that are going to have to be implemented.  We take every precaution we can to make sure that it is done correctly.  We’ve been making these since January, this is not the first one we have made—we’ve been making them all along—employees have never seen that system changes are taking place—in fact, what they are seeing is that their pay has been correct.”

“So we will continue to have to make some additional adjustments but we’re going to try to make sure that no employee’s pay is affected as we make those.”

Northeast Valley News: If you will be doing more work-arounds and the latest round of issues came as a result of one of those work-arounds, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that something might happen again?

“Again, Brian, we’ve been making these changes even back into last year and then through this year and we’ve gone 12 consecutive pay periods making changes and still having that pay come out accurate.  There’s no reason to believe that we should have future errors.”

“But having said that—Brian, (Hibbs addressing the reporter—are you perfect?)

Hibbs: “Okay, now, if everybody were perfect, I could guarantee 100%—but the fact is, if the person who had run this into production had done it right, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Northeast Valley News: Anything else you would like to add?

Anderson: “So I do want to assure you and the faculty that we do have the ability to run ASRS against ASRS deductions.  So I just ran that report this morning and every single pay, every single deduction is exactly as it should be for the paycheck that will be cut July 3rd —and I will continue to run that as the system gets more data and before payroll is confirmed on the 1st of July.”

“The other thing is, I also want to share with you some of the other enhancements that Elliot has indicated that we put in since January.  So, for the very first time in Maricopa’s history, faculty can see their load.  Not only can they see their load, we have simplified the pay calculation process so they can understand it.  Previous to January, there were tons of different ways that things were calculated and all kinds of things that made it difficult for faculty to understand their adjunct and overload pay.  Because the bulk of the faculty that are residential have a contract in addition to their overload.  Now the calculation is very simple.  I’ll use easy math because math’s not my strongest suit.  So if I teach one load hour I’m supposed to get $925 for that load hour.  I teach that over 10 weeks—I can now know and verify that I get $92.50 per week—and I can see that in my check.”

“So that’s one of the first enhancements we made for faculty.  We will continue in the fall to roll out more things to them so that they will be able to also see their base contract, online, in their own self service.  Those who are on a 12 month pay will be able to see that the first week of July.  Those who are on the nine month pay—it will be available to them on the first day of accountability.  Again, they will be able to see and know exactly what they should be paid on that contract every pay period—it will be delineated out.  Additionally, they will be able to see any additional pay that they received.  Chair pay, supervision pay, any of that—they will be able to see for themselves, in their own self-service page to ensure that they’re getting that—and if they’re not, then they will be able to go back to their college, to their HR or their VP of AA or whoever is the appropriate person at that college who manages pay to get that information and find out why they are not being paid.”

Hibbs: “I do want to add one other thing as well—and that is that—ahh—I mean this is highly regrettable.  We certainly never want an employee’s pay to be affected adversely—and so this was something that is very disserving to us and we know was very much a hardship on employees.  We’ve worked with the state retirement system to try to figure out how we keep the employee whole with the amount of retirement they have attributable to them—but as well, to make sure that we recover those deductions and we get them over to the retirement system.”

Hibbs: “They’ve (Arizona State Retirement System) indicated that we can take two pay periods to recover the money and so our approach right now appears to be that we will take 50% of the amount that was due back on the 3rd of July and then about the 17th, 18th of July we will take the other half that is due so that we can spread this repayment over a couple pay periods for people that were affected.”

Faulty Association President,  Heffner, told that while it’s good to acknowledge mistakes, at least on the part of some district officials, he feels the issues go far beyond system errors at this point.

“We can appreciate the explanation but only time will tell if the system isn’t broken. Employees’ trust in the HR payroll is virtually nonexistent. An apology and acknowledgement from the District’s Chancellor would be a good start towards bridging the HR credibility gap between the district administrative leadership and employees as she bears the ultimate responsibility for district operations, Heffner said.

“Unfortunately, due to the recent errors in HR payroll, it will be a long time before we are able to feel comfortable not having to review our paychecks in detail every two weeks,” Heffner said.

One faculty member that spoke to on the condition of anonymity believes that there is much more to all of these errors than meets the eye.

“I’m sorry, but there is something more sinister here at work and I am not alone in thinking this. There is a major underlying issue that indicates there may be a bigger problem in this district…like, ‘shifting the budget’ to fix one issue before another is revealed.”

Whatever the case, this latest payroll error has only fueled the existing mistrust on the part of many faculty and staff in the Maricopa Community College District.

At the very least, numerous faculty and staff have resigned themselves to the fact that they will need to check and double check every pay period to make sure that they are actually receiving what they have earned.