Payroll change leaves some school employees short

When Mary Jo Pollack found out this spring she was going from being paid twice a month to one payment at the end of the month, she didn't think much of it.

Pollack works for one of James City County's largest employers, Williamsburg-James City County Schools, which employers more than 1,000 people.

The school division moved the last of its employees -- bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, some teachers and operations staff -- to a once-a-month pay schedule with its professional staff in September.

It was a move to save money on payroll processing as well as move to a new payroll processing, a switch the district made this summer, officials said.

"No one really realized what was going to happen," Pollack said. "When we got that first check, that's when we knew — this is going to be a problem."

Pollack and a group of roughly 15 other district workers attended an October school board meeting to tell members the district's move has financially stretched some workers to the breaking point.

"We want you to know that your decision to go to one pay period a month has greatly affected people's lives," said Pollack, who was chosen to be the workers' spokesperson.

She went on to explain that some people had lost their vehicles and others were moving in together to cut costs.

The workers, she said, want the district to consider paying workers every two weeks, or going back to the twice-a-month pay schedule they'd been under for years.

Pollack and other drivers stressed that they enjoy the work they do, and feel like they have a good employer.

"They keep telling us we're the most valuable employees they have, but we want them to show it," one bus driver said. "How can we focus on our jobs when we're so worried about how we'll pay bills?"

During the board members' comment period, Williamsburg representative Kyra Cook said she, too, had heard from workers that the payroll move had been a "rough transition." She asked how the district could help struggling employees.

District chief financial officer Christina Berta said the division informed workers about the change last spring, and it didn't take effect until September.

"We aren't personal tax advisers, so we can't provide tax relief or advice to employees," Berta said. "I'm certainly understanding that it's a change, and change is never a fun thing for employees."

The CFO said the division has already seen efficiencies in the new process, with payroll taking a lot less time than before. The process is still new, and any savings from the new system will take time to gauge, Berta said.

After being questioned by board member Ruth Larson, Berta said the district can reconsider the move if it doesn't see savings.

In the meantime, workers feeling the pinch can make a few adjustments to help them see more take-home pay, said Howard Busbee, a retired taxation professor at the College of William and Mary.

One way would be for workers to update their W-4, or federal withholding forms. By claiming exemptions, workers could see the amount withheld reduced and more in their monthly checks, he said.

"Their gross pay has not changed, but since they're being paid in one lump sum, (the district) may be required by federal law to withhold more, so it appears that they're making less," Busbee said.

Many workers would get some funds back when they filed their taxes returns, he added.

He suggested workers make adjustments in automatic payments schedules to align them with their new pay periods, stock up on non-perishable groceries when they get paid as well as pay as many bills at one time as they can.

"It can be difficult to make this transition, and it does put a burden (on the worker) to balance out money and make it last for a whole month," Busbee said.

For Pollack and her co-workers, the change remains a hardship. She said it has led at least one bus driver to retire and two others to find other jobs.

"We can't wait until the end of the year to get taxes back," Pollack said. "Some people need that money in their pockets now."

Canty can be reached at (757) 345-2341.

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