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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 33, No. 22 * November 26, 2001

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A Day at the Raises

This is a tribute to unsung heroes and heroines in the human resources partnership. They are the “few and the brave” who make every county operation work. They are the squad that comes along behind the elephants at the end of the parade and cleans up the poop. They pick up where the budget office, HR, the county manager, and the elected officials leave off. They are the staff members of the payroll office!

While usually part of the finance department, payroll staff members are full partners of the Human Resources staff as key insiders in public administration. They manage private information about all of us. They respond to our questions and they implement the changes in our insurance benefits, salaries, retirement and our personal lives such as our new dependents or the “coming of age” of our children who no longer qualify as insurance dependents.

They are always available to answer our questions — usually about some mysterious markings on our paychecks that need translation — markings usually created by payroll in the first place!

Often the payroll staff is headed by some venerable “ancient one” who has worked for the organization for many years, remembers when punch cards were the data processing standard, and has labored in the same cramped office for years! With quiet dignity, the staff of accountants and account clerks works hard to spray WD-40 on the complex machinery of the organization. This is often done with neither the appropriate recognition, nor often, the appropriate salary range or level of job classification.

The work is compounded by the zeal of state and federal legislators and bureaucrats to over-complicate our lives by constant tinkering with tax codes, Fair Labor Standards Act interpretations and audit demands. Then there are the subpoenas and other demands for copies of records. It seems as though the payroll staff gets a subpoena whenever some employee gets a divorce!

However, the focus of this article is on the self-inflicted torture applied to the poor suffering payroll staff by their “friends” in the organization — the HR staff! Each year there is a special period of joy, anticipation and feeding frenzy by employees as a result of labor negotiations or the actions of the county commissioners at the end of budget deliberations.

It is equally a time of dread for payroll. It is the time when salary increases, cost-of-living increases, negotiated range adjustments, etc., etc. are to be implemented. Often, in the heat of debate, in order to adopt the budget or conclude the labor agreement, payroll staff members are selected for sacrifice at the altar of expediency.

Of course we’ll agree to make the raises retroactive! Of course, we can have the payments appear on next Thursday’s paychecks! We agree to add 12 new payroll deductions for left-handed union members under five-foot-eight inches tall!

These changes are often determined without regard for what comes next in payroll — trauma!

The staff works on the weekends, nights, early in the morning to get the job done and make the county manager or the HR director look good! “For the good of the organization,” payroll staff members visit pharmacies for tranquilizers and “no doze” pills. They suffer through the extra work, the inevitable computer system glitches — all to get the paychecks out with the changes promised, on the appointed “day at the raises.”

If for some reason there is a delay or problem, our search for a scapegoat or someone to blame leads us right to the people in payroll. In reality, we should look in the mirror as negotiators or managers.

In collective bargaining as in budget deliberations, the HR staff and the county manager need to carry around little plastic icons of the payroll gods to remind them of what is realistic and what makes sense. In lieu of retroactivity, consider a flat one-time increase.

Instead of promising to implement salary changes on a “date certain,” consult with the payroll staff first and leave the implementation date to a time to be determined by payroll. The latter won’t be as hard as it seems since even the most grizzly of union leaders harbors an internal respect for the payroll staff, though it is not often stated.

So, here’s to the “payrollers,” to the Rebecca Wests and Dania Tomeues who keep America’s public agencies and public employees paid correctly despite ourselves. Stay healthy and, by the way, don’t take any time off. We’re working on new labor agreements and payroll changes as we speak!

All the best,


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