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Audit finds errors in complicated firefighter pay system

Monday, March 17, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The City of Austin is struggling with paying its firefighters exactly what it owes them because of a complicated payroll system, federal laws, collective bargaining and a computer program not created to deal with the firefighters’ standard 53-hour workweek, according to an internal audit.


Council Member Mike Martinez, a former firefighter, said, “We’ve been saying for several years—firefighters have been saying—they believe there are some problems.” However, until Martinez convinced former City Manager Toby Futrell to conduct an audit, the Fire Department insisted that the city’s Banner payroll system was working properly. 


Clearly, that is not the case, since the auditors found errors in 30 of 84 firefighters’ earnings statements analyzed in a sample, an error rate of 36 percent.


The audit found: “Exposures to the City involve: (1) payment for exceptions during the pay period to the standard work schedule being delayed to a subsequent payday; (2) paying employees too much or too little without knowing it; (3) an increased risk of fraudulent activity because of frequent, often insufficiently documented adjusting entries; and (4) difficulties in employees understanding their paychecks, with a resulting effect on employee morale.”


Martinez, who served as president of the Austin Firefighters Association before his election to Council in 2006, said, “We’ve been saying for several years—firefighters have been saying they believe there are some problems. They are not mathematicians,” but they can look at their paychecks and see they do not match the hours worked.


One of the reasons for the mismatch is the city has attempted to equalize or smooth firefighters’ paychecks, Futrell explained. “If you try to track your pay and your paycheck is not reflecting actual hours because it’s getting smoothed, … it’s going to look different and feel different paycheck to paycheck.” She said Austin is not the only city whose firefighters are experiencing paycheck pains.


“I’ve talked with past Fire Chiefs and the current fire chief and this is a common problem,” Futrell noted.


Auditors struggled with that, Futrell said. At the same time, they were struggling with tracking pay in a way that makes sense. Then, she said, “They found something that they were not expecting, which is control weaknesses–that the manual system did not have all the necessary controls. And so recordkeeping,” at the individual fire stations, “was not what it should have been and checks and balances and controls were not what they should have been.”


But Martinez felt like the department should have responded sooner to firefighters’ complaints.  “The fact that we never took it beyond the Fire Department responding to the firefighters saying ‘We think everything is fine,’ for five years running, I think causes some concerns and should have raised enough concerns in and of itself originally. So, if there’s anything to say about the chief and the Fire Department it is that they didn’t act on this when it was brought to their attention,” he said. “And they continued to say that Banner was working properly and doing what it was expected to be doing.”


To Martinez, the internal audit shows that Banner does not fulfill expectations. “When you have a 35 percent discrepancy rate by randomly sampling earnings statements, I think you should have some concerns,” he added.


Other employees, such as police officers, for example, do not generally face such difficulties understanding their paychecks or receiving proper pay. The culprit is in that the firefighters have a very difficult work cycle. The average non-management employee is supposed to work 40 hours and get overtime. But firefighters work 13 hours more than other employees before overtime starts, as dictated by federal law. “So it’s difficult to calculate when everything in the modern work world is centered around a 40-hour work week,” Martinez said.


The other wrinkle for firefighters is that each job has a specific hourly wage. If one is absent, a lower-ranked employee may step into his shoes and receive a correspondingly higher wage for those hours.


What Martinez says he wants now is one additional staff member function skilled at integrating federal labor law into the city’s payroll system “and whatever comes out of contractual agreements,” between the city and the AFA “Hopefully, we’ll see that come forward and be able to iron out the issues and if not, I think we should look at the scrapping the Banner system and finding something that does what we need it to do and is easy for an employee to understand,” he said.

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