Union: Mat-Su threatens to fire overpaid teachers

The University Division of Internal Audit is reviewing the books this month at the Matanuska-Susitna College after allegations that numerous payroll errors were not corrected after more than a year, according to one faculty union.

The Alaska Community College Federation of Teachers, or ACCFT, which represents full-time faculty at the campus, described the errors as both under and overpayments to faculty and staff.

The issue became urgent for the union when faculty members that had been overpaid were told they needed to reimburse the college.

“Partly it came to our attention not because of issues with the amount (they were over-paid), but that they were being threatened that if they didn’t immediately reimburse the university, they were going to be terminated,” Suzanne Forster, chairwoman of grievances for the ACCFT, said.

Debbie Dickey, the business manager for the college’s Human Resources Office, said the campus is currently undergoing an audit, but disputed the allegations that the audit was initiated by the ACCFT and that it was based on payroll errors.

“It was over a year and a half ago that we brought some problems to light, and it went through Statewide Labor Relations and UAA Human Resources,” Dickey said. “We did have some problems that were taken care of, but those were brought to light by us, not by the ACCFT or anybody else.”

The current audit is a regularly-scheduled event, Dickie said, adding that the payroll portion of the audit, which has been completed, had, to her knowledge, no significant errors.

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“We haven’t had an internal audit in a number of years – like, 2001 was our last one – and we’ve had some turnover in our personnel positions, so really it was more of a procedural audit to see if we were missing stuff,” Dickey said.

Patricia Jenkins, the co-president of the ACCFT, said the Statewide Office of Labor Relations, headed by Beth Behner, had informed the union that an initial review suggested there were sufficient grounds for the audit based on payroll issues.

“It is not true that this was a regularly scheduled audit. We requested this,” Jenkins said. “Numerous payroll error complaints by the ACCFT faculty members prompted us to request Labor Relations to authorize an audit of the Mat-Su campus.”

Behner said her office is not responsible for approving requests for audits, and that she was unable to remember another instance in which a union has requested an audit at UAA. The university is not required to conduct an audit at the request of a union, she said.

“The union separately asked for the university to consider doing an audit, but that was not related, necessarily, to the reasons why the university undertook an audit,” Behner said. “I don’t believe that the internal audit office looked at the information that the ACCFT was forwarding. I think the university made its own determination.”

There has been one payroll complaint case at the campus that the Labor Relations Office has been dealing with, Behner said, though she did not know whether more faculty were involved but simply hadn’t filed grievances.

Mike Turner, vice president of the ACCFT, said the frequency of the incidents at the campus and the manner that they were dealt with made the ACCFT aware that the errors would not be corrected internally at the campus, but rather would need to be assessed by an independent auditor.

“We’ve got 309 people (statewide), and we find it absolutely extraordinary that with a payroll glitch there, and a glitch there, that we have all of a sudden this type of intensity at one campus,” Turner said. “We have long-term consecutive mistakes in payroll; we have long-term errors in reporting leave and time off. We’ve never had payroll issues take over a year to resolve.”

Turner said the union’s earlier efforts to correct the problems were unsuccessful because of the labor-intensive task of reconciling payroll records with the university. He said the union temporarily overlooked other contractual concerns with UAA in its efforts to correct the situation at the Mat-Su campus, but when the university laid out the ultimatum to the affected Mat-Su faculty and staff, the ACCFT decided an audit would become necessary.

“We get together and we’re at the business of teaching, and getting ready, contracts are going and we have negotiated salary increases that haven’t been added in, and everybody’s working. And then we find out there’s an error,” Turner said. “Somebody’s got to say that somebody made a mistake. We never have insisted that our faculty get money to which they’re not entitled. Not one faculty member insisted that they keep the money. I think what was rather offensive was the year run-around and then being told you’re going to pay this back or else.”

Dave Read, the director of internal audit, which is reviewing the books, could not comment on the audit while it was in progress, but he said an audit can last as long as several months and it was therefore uncertain when the results would become available.

“It’s what we call an operational audit; typically it looks at business practices,” Read said.

Jim Mullen, senior labor relations coordinator for the state, said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the case, but he confirmed that the campus was being audited.

“You know, I wouldn’t be able to tell exactly why it was initiated,” Mullen said. “I think there is some substance to (the payroll problems), but not being privy to exactly what initiated the audit team to go down there, I couldn’t comment specifically.”

Gebeyehu Ejigu, vice chancellor of administrative affairs, requested the audit through a memo to Read, although the reasons for his request were not immediately clear because he was out of town. He did not respond to an e-mail inquiry regarding the matter.