Photo Credit: Henry Taylor
UGA employees protest changes to their pay schedule at a University Council meeting in September.
Nearly 3,000 University of Georgia workers will see their paychecks take a hit in coming weeks. As those employees are shifted from a monthly payroll to being paid every two weeks, some may not be able to pay their mortgages, car payments, credit cards and other monthly bills this month.
The transition comes at a tough time when families spend more on gifts during the holidays, vacation travel and heating bills. Amidst the turmoil, however, 20 donors have stepped up to make a difference—and are encouraging others to do the same.
The Community Empowerment Fund of Athens, created in 2014 to help low-wage workers facing hardship in Athens, is focusing on UGA employees this year. So far, the fund’s GoFundMe page has raised $1,997 of its $25,000 goal, with several UGA faculty and staff supervisors doling out $25–$250 from their pockets to help.
“It occurred to me that one way we could help was to put our money where our mouth was,” says Patricia Yager, chairwoman of the University Council Human Resources Committee and a marine sciences professor. “The UGA faculty and staff who are not affected by the changes can help those who are. There are enough of us, so we should spread the pain around so no one is seriously harmed.”
Ricky Roberts, an Honors Program academic advisor and Economic Justice Coalition member, created the fund when she saw that collecting toys, gift certificates and bus passes during the holidays wasn’t enough to help those in need. “It’s a crying shame that we have people who work full-time jobs every day but can’t afford to take care of their families,” Roberts says. “We’re home to a growing number of working poor, and all of us in this community have to do something about it.”
Roberts will keep the GoFundMe page and applications rolling throughout the next year. She reviews them on the first business day of each month and has already received requests from UGA employees for rent and day-care assistance. Grants of up to $250 will go out to employees in November and December, and Roberts hopes to fund as many requests as possible, as long as people continue to donate.
“I grew up with neighbors who rallied to help each other. That’s how we got through the hard times,” says Roberts, who was raised outside of Detroit by a single mom. “We need to infuse that spirit here and find a way to support each other in Athens.”
Why It’s Happening
In May, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a significant change to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which created minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay and child labor standards across the country in 1938. The update changed the minimum salary that employees must earn to be exempt from overtime rules and dictated that, for most types of jobs, employees who earn less than $913 per week, or $47,476 per year, by Dec. 1 must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a seven-day pay period.
Four million employees nationwide—and 3,000 at UGA—are affected by the change this year. At UGA, those who aren’t eligible for overtime are paid monthly. Those who are eligible for overtime are paid biweekly, or every two weeks.
The turmoil hangs on that difference. Thousands of UGA employees who are currently paid monthly are being transitioned to a biweekly paycheck. Ultimately, annual salaries remain the same, but the timing is thrown off. During 10 months of the year, employees will receive two biweekly checks that provide 12/13 of their gross pay compared to the monthly checks. Two months of the year—March and September in 2017—employees will receive three paychecks.
For the first paycheck of the transition, employees will feel another gap. In order to create a buffer for human resources staff to calculate overtime, UGA is delaying employees’ pay for the second half of November until eight days after the month ends.
“It is a great thing to pay people fairly for the overtime hours they work,” Yager says. “What I didn’t understand initially was why UGA had to implement the new law the way they did.”
Although the update was announced in May, Congress pushed back on the law until July. After that, colleges across the University System of Georgia coordinated a plan to tell employees how the change would affect them. UGA employees received a detailed email in early September, which to many felt too close to the November transition to save for the pinch. More than 200 employees attended each of four open forums in September, either in person or online, asking questions about timing, deductions, job classifications and overtime. They voiced confusion and frustration about the communication delay, the implementation date and future changes.
“This first pay period is going to be hard,” Michael Lewis, UGA Staff Council chair and IT professional in the geology department, told employees as he presented the updates. “I’m surprised y’all aren’t throwing bricks at me yet.”
In some departments, a 40-hour workweek doesn’t make sense, several employees said. Dairy farms under the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, for example, demand overtime based on the needs each week. The Office of International Education, for example, also experiences higher demand during summer months, spring break and weekends when students travel.
“We’re a unique unit,” says Yana Cornish, OIE director. “We have duties, such as risk management, that no one else on campus can do.”
As changes move forward into 2017, staff members are also murmuring about which departments will really track overtime hours, provide compensatory flex time and find the money to pay employees for the overtime they clock.
“Units need to manage their resources and make accommodations,” Russ Ramsey of Human Resources’ Classification and Compensation Department repeated several times during the forums. “Employees and supervisors need to discuss expectations. Supervisors must consider whether they can get the same work for 40 hours.”
Making It Work
For now, employees are bracing for the financial change. The UGA Human Resources Office struggled in September and October to find solutions. They encouraged staff to cash out 56 hours of unused annual leave time to bridge the gap. They told employees to change their W4 forms for a few months to reduce the amount of money withheld from paychecks. They also offered to defer parking permit fees and send letters to lenders and service providers for official notification of the paycheck change.
In late October, the office also changed payroll procedures to shorten the nine-day processing delay to eight days. The first biweekly paycheck will go out Dec. 8, and going forward, all biweekly staff members will be paid on Thursdays instead of Fridays. The office also teamed with Georgia United Credit Union to offer short-term, low-interest loans between $1,000–$2,000 to staff members who need to cover a big gap.
Beyond those options, however, the Community Empowerment Fund of Athens may be one of the only local options for receiving free help, says JoBeth Allen, a professor who retired from the College of Education after 28 years.
“The people who ought to be leading this are the upper administrators and deans, who could say they’ll donate to make a commitment to the staff,” she says. “The leadership needs to come from the top to say we’re not going to let a bureaucratic glitch affect the lives of people we work with every day.”
When she first heard about the federal changes in September, Yager created a University Council Human Resources subcommittee to look into possible solutions. They met for hours but couldn’t find a great solution. “I was a bit dogged, I’m afraid. Aside from improving transparency and communication, there were no obvious solutions given the constraints of state laws and the antiquated and overworked way we do payroll at UGA,” she says. “I really thought I could help, but I failed.”
Then she heard about the fund and donated. She posted the link on Facebook and passed it to several UGA listservs. This is the obvious solution, she thought, as she encouraged fellow UGA employees to donate throughout October.
“The staff that are affected by the salary changes are some of our most valuable employees at UGA,” Yager says. “They are our technicians, our IT support and our student advisors. These people are critical to our mission.”
When Yager posted the fund link on her Facebook page, several supervisors in the UGA Libraries department decided to donate. More than 50 percent of staff at campus libraries will be affected.
“Sometimes a grassroots effort is all you can do,” says Lisa Bayer, director of UGA Press, which is part of UGA Libraries. Bayer donated after seeing Yager’s post on Facebook—then shared the link. “It’s an ethical imperative that those who are not being affected a month before the holidays put their money where their mouth is.”