VOLUME 30, NUMBER 23 THURSDAY, March 4, 1999

New state payroll system puts added stress on beleaguered staff

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An Open Letter to the University at Buffalo Community:

I am the supervisor of Payroll Operations for State Payroll Services, Department of Human Resource Services. Last week, we received, via phone and fax, information regarding a very serious complaint lodged against the business offices by a recently hired distinguished faculty member. The complaint alleged mistreatment by several business offices, but the final catalyst unfortunately was the Payroll Department.

I am extremely sorry this faculty member encountered the problems he did, but I am not surprised a bit-and even somewhat grateful-that someone finally filed a serious complaint. The Payroll Department is a disaster waiting to happen. We joke that we perform a weapons check upon staff entry in the morning. On a recent payday, we had a Public Safety officer on the premises because we anticipated so many payroll problems with the state's new online payroll system. On any given payday, we discover numerous employees have been paid incorrectly due to circumstances beyond our control that occur in this new system. We have no way of knowing how many we don't discover.

We have a grand total of three full-time employees who process the entire state and teaching/graduate assistant payrolls. We have roughly 5,000 state and 1000 TA/GA employees. The volume of transactions processed each payroll probably averages 300 to 500; peak periods are much higher. Every payroll comes right down to the very last day before we know if, in fact, we are going to meet Albany's deadline and actually get everything processed. We are severely understaffed in every area of responsibility. We have, for an extended period of time, only been able to accomplish the most critical functions necessary to produce paychecks. Virtually everything else has to wait until we hopefully find a spare hour or so to catch up. Even so, we routinely work overtime and work through lunches, breaks, weekends and vacations. This situation is not recent or short-term. This has been going on for three years. When we hire additional staff, they don't stay. Who would? The atmosphere is awful. When we lose staff, we lose the funding and can't hire again.

Every one of us has been treated for stress-related problems. Last year, I left the office for a routine doctor visit and ended up in the cardiac-care unit. I wonder what it will take for someone to realize the severity of this situation and take steps to correct the problem. I hope it will change before a staff person becomes seriously ill or an employee becomes annoyed enough to injure someone.

One of the criticisms voiced in the mistreated faculty member's complaint was that the business service's unit has forgotten who the customer is and how to provide service. I totally disagree. We have not forgotten, by any means. We simply lack the time, energy, and stamina to take what is thrown at us on a day-to-day basis and still provide top-level service. To provide excellent service requires a commitment of effort, as well as resources. In my experience, the philosophy of "service excellence" has chiefly been expressed on paper and not demonstrated in fact. Every single staff person in the Payroll Services unit has expressed their concerns, and these same concerns have been reinforced time after time by our director, and the response remains "due to budget constraints," etc., etc. We all know the refrain.

There comes a time when a choice has to be made. Can we continue to sacrifice health, family time and quality of life to provide excellent service when we see that, in the order of resource priorities, giving Payroll Services the staffing and funding we require is about as remote as our desperate attempts to win the New York State lottery? The choice has become our job or our health and well-being. What would you chose?

Kathleen J. Berchou, Supervisor, Payroll Operation

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