By Chelsie Derman
Joseph Goebel, an associate professor of World Languages and Cultures, thought “maybe it was just me” when emailing his fellow coworkers in a faculty thread at the start of spring break about his paycheck errors. He did not anticipate other employees to be facing similar issues.
“The thread just exploded,” Goebel said. “[Some employees] were owed thousands of dollars back to HR… It was a nuisance to me, but it was a lot more than a nuisance for a lot of other people.”
Because Human Resources (HR) miscalculated his benefit deductions, Goebel owed $550 to the College — and the money would be taken out of his paychecks.
Hundreds of employees experienced paycheck errors this semester — the College underpaid 279 employees and gave refunds to 163 employees. Employees owed anywhere from $50 to $5,000.
“After I saw these people, I wrote later in the thread and said, ‘OK, so let’s for the sake of our argument [say] we didn’t know that this was happening, how do we know that we got the right numbers now, and how do we know that it’s going to be done right in the future?” Goebel asked.
After faculty continued sharing about their own paycheck errors, blowing up the thread, Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Matthew Wund stepped in to explain what was going on. In his email to employees on March 23, he explained why the errors occurred in the first place and what the paying-back process would look like.
According to Wund, faculty and staff affected were the ones with a “life event” or anything that would cause a paycheck to change. This includes anything from a promotion, going on sabbatical, any type of paid leave or insurance changes.
As for the paying-back process, he said affected employees fell into three tiers. Tier one was for anyone who owed less than $100. For this group, the College took the money out of the employee’s next paycheck. Tier two was where Goebel fell into. In this category, employees owed anywhere from $100 to $600, and their repayments spread over four paychecks. Tier three was for employees who owed over $600; these employees could either have their repayment taken out of their first paycheck or receive an interest-free loan that spreads over seven paychecks. For employees who owed over $1,000, they received a phone call and an email that explained what had happened.
Dr. Tao Dumas, a political science professor, faced paycheck issues after going on sabbatical during the 2021-2022 academic year. The College had undercharged her for health insurance, and now she has to pay back money to the College.
This isn’t the first time Dumas had paycheck issues due to HR mistakes, however. Last summer, she taught an online summer class, and the College wrongly took out money for retirement contributions out of her summer paycheck. Dumas explained how, as a ten month employee, all of her retirement contributions had been paid during the academic school year. The College was not supposed to take money out of her summer paycheck. Fortunately, Dumas noticed this error and contacted HR to correct their mistake. HR obliged, and the College began paying Dumas back the money — but they never stopped.
“In the fall they kept paying me back, and I didn’t notice the additional money,” Dumas said. “What happened was that, after they continued paying me back for a couple of paychecks, they caught their mistake and asked me to pay them back for money they overpaid me.”
While this situation frustrated her — both this semester and previous semesters — Dumas is grateful that she did not owe a large amount of money. She sympathizes with the employees heavily affected.
“To be told you owe thousands of dollars, especially for people who have families and other obligations, that could be a lot of money,” said Dumas. “I would really like to know that someone is accountable for this, and that there is a system in place to make sure that this isn’t going to happen again.”
Dr. Aimee Stahl, a psychology professor, had to pay back $4,882.73. She owed this large sum due to missed health insurance benefits.
“I did find this frustrating, but I also recognize that the current HR team was not responsible for this error,” Stahl said.
Fortunately, because of the high amount of money she owed, Stahl qualified for the emergency loan program, so she was not financially burdened.
Stahl had received a phone call mid-March about her paycheck issues, followed by a more in-depth email.
“I first had emailed back and forth with several different individuals, but then Trisha King was kind enough to bring everyone together and explain the resolution process to me on a Zoom call,” Stahl said. “It appears that everything is in order now, and I appreciated her transparency.”
Stahl had met with HR on April 12, and fortunately all of her issues were resolved by that date.
For history professor Qin Shao, she noticed problems back in early 2022 with her retirement contribution. She saw that her annual contributions to her retirement account on her December 2021 paycheck did not match the total on her retirement account. Because of this, Shao reached out to HR in Jan. 2022, contacting several people, such as the employee in charge of benefits, the director and the manager.
“For more than a year, I got a couple of replies from HR that said they would ‘investigate,’ in the vast space of silence,” Shao said. “I provided them with all the documents and my repeated request for a meeting met with, again, silence.”
HR had, indeed, been investigating the issue. Last semester, HR decided to hire an external auditing firm to look over payroll data.
“They’re discovering problems because they’re looking for problems,” Wund said.
Dr. Wund, who teaches biology, also faced paycheck issues in previous semesters.
Wund had tried to cancel his dental benefits, but it did not cancel until roughly a year later. Yet the College continued to deduct dental benefits, which was an issue with the state and not HR. HR had filed the correct paperwork, but when they tried to cancel the dental benefits, they canceled his health insurance instead.
“It’s resolved now, but I never got reimbursed for all of the money that was taken out of my paycheck that should have been, and I just sort of gave up asking and [thought] ‘oh well, that’s just how it goes,’” Wund said. “I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I don’t have time.”
But for the HR benefit issues that specifically occurred this semester, Wund had already been informed about them a few weeks before the rest of the faculty. Cristi Cartwright, the employee and labor relations manager at HR who had joined the College’s staff about six months ago, told Wund and AFT President Nancy Lasher about such issues. Wund and Lasher had met with HR to understand the root of the problems and to help them communicate the situation to the faculty. Many employees reached out to the union about the paycheck issues.
Around the same time Cartwright joined the staff, Lynarkah Stephen also got hired as the associate vice president of HR, and Sharon Blanton was put under HR in June 2022.
“We found out that some important processes that should have been run on a weekly basis in FY23 were not run for several months,” Blanton said. “This oversight resulted in some employees receiving a benefits or retirement plan underpayment/overpayment notice. We recently implemented new audits that will be used by a variety of departments who handle processes that impact pay.”
Blanton said they are working with external IT consultants, and they hired a director of benefits and wellness to “review processes and improve the customer experience.”
The new Director of Benefits and Wellness is Trisha King, who Stahl had met with on Zoom after learning she owed nearly $5,000.
The new staff has ultimately been trying to fix the HR errors and to prevent future problems.
“Because we are continuing to audit systems, there may be additional adjustments to come,” Stephen said. “We are collaborating with payroll to refine internal audit processes, create customized reporting to proactively capture these changes, determine process improvements, and build additional steps to validate data.”
While Stephen explained that the root of the HR problems was “not properly processing changes such as unpaid leave, change to a healthcare plan, or rate alignment related to salary increases,” Wund believes the payroll problems stem from HRs high turnover rate. Yet, despite this, Wund has a good feeling about HR’s new leadership.
“It’s very frustrating for employees to experience this type of thing frequently, but I’m cautiously optimistic that the College is finally investing in Human Resources the way they need to solve the problem,” Wund said.
Wund explained that a paycheck is influenced by many groups of people, so the fault for the errors is not entirely on HR.
“A paycheck is really a combination of the payroll department communicating with the Human Resources department, communicating with the state of New Jersey, because our benefits come through the state of New Jersey,” Wund said, “and so if there are problems in any of those three groups of people, then there could be problems for employees… It’s not just each of those departments that need to have their work in order, but they depend upon each other to communicate well and to also be doing the correct work.”
Because of the errors, some employees are losing trust in HR.
“For the decades I’ve been at TCNJ, I had never had any issue with HR in the past,” Shao said. “For any questions I had, someone at HR responded and resolved them promptly…. For years I didn't even look at my payslips because of my trust in our HR. Where did that HR go? Have you all been looking into the details of your payslips and retirement accounts? How many undiscovered errors are out there?”
HR is currently working on any outstanding issues. Paycheck errors may have been frustrating to employees, but the College is striving to fix the current problems and to prevent problems from occurring in future semesters.
“Human Resources is challenging because it’s one of those kinds of things that… if they’re doing a great job, you don’t notice them,” Wund said.
He said the same applies to a correct payroll, including benefit deductions.
“No one cheers for Human Resources and payroll when things are going right, but everyone notices them when things go wrong,” Wund said. “It’s like the electricity. Every time you flip on a light switch, you don’t cheer, ‘oh, the electricity went on!’ You just expect it to work, but you definitely notice when there’s a power outage.”