Faculty upset by announcement concerning new pay period schedule: Union failed to consult membership in advance

Graphic by Kathleen Moore

On Thursday, May 3, faculty were informed via email the University would be adopting a new pay period schedule that would require some professors to “return to the University any monies accrued as a result” of the change.  

The email was sent jointly from Erin Nechipurenko, assistant vice president of human resources, and Robert Donohue, president of the Framingham State chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA).

Faculty were provided two options: to have the excess money removed from two paychecks in August, or to have it removed from their paychecks in one installment when they left university service.

The University agreed to change its pay periods after the MSCA filed repeated grievances concerning the current method, according to Nechipurenko.

This will affect 66 tenured and tenure-track faculty hired after the 2013-2014 academic year, according to Nechipurenko.

Lina Rincón, sociology professor, said, “It’s a bill. I am a worker at this university. I love working here. I give it my all.

“That’s why it’s a little bit of a heartbreak,” she added, “because I wouldn’t expect to get a bill from the institution that I work for. It is the opposite. They are supposed to pay me for the hard work that I do.”

In reference to the email, she said, “It was not thoughtful. It was like: ‘Here’s a bill.’ Figure it out. You have to pay for this.”

Rincón said, “I had junior faculty members – more junior than me – coming to me crying because they are living on food stamps, because they don’t know how they are going to pay for child care if they have to pay this amount of money. And we’re talking about $2,500 – that’s a lot of money.”

Nechipurenko said, “Part of the agreement was the union and the University would communicate to the affected faculty members the change to the 9/1 pay calendar. I took the responsibility for drafting the communication, and I shared it with the union, and then we decided on the language to use.

“I have apologized for the communication because it definitely has caused some distress for faculty,” she added. “I feel terrible that that’s what happened. I think people didn’t understand the communication regarding the change and it was interpreted as a bill from the university.”

She said, “That was not the intent and that’s not what the language said, but I understand that was unclear to the unit members.” Unit member is another term used for people who are part of a union.

While the grievances have been filed each fall since 2016 and there have been ongoing negotiations between FSU and the MSCA, the affected faculty were not informed until last week.

Patricia Sánchez-Connally, sociology professor, said the lack of communication is part of what makes this situation so upsetting. “None of us knew any of this.”

She added, “We need answers. We need transparency. We need to know how this happened in the first place.”

Nechipurenko said the University did not have the right to inform the affected faculty ahead of time. “When grievances are filed, our obligation is to work with the union leadership under the rules in the union contract, and it would be inappropriate for us to talk with union members about the specific things that are happening in a grievance. We can’t deal directly with the unit members,” she added.

Donohue said not informing faculty was “a horrible failure in judgement on my part.”

The union leaders were negotiating “in the way we usually do in situations like this, because usually, we’re dealing with individual grievances, and usually, it’s all confidential. So, we fell upon a confidential approach that would have been appropriate for an individual but was clearly inappropriate for a group. It was poorly thought out,” he added.

According to Donohue, the MSCA initially filed the grievance and demanded a change in the pay cycle in order to rectify a different pay issue. “We did this because we thought there was unambiguous evidence that unit members were not being paid everything they should be paid under the collective bargaining agreement.”

The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is the set of condition under which faculty and librarians agree to work. It is negotiated between the Board of Higher Education and the MSCA. The CBA outlines a process for filing grievances if the union believes a university has violated the conditions of the CBA.

He said, “A grievance was filed by a unit member who believed they were getting shorted on the amount of money they received when they left university service. The union was a participant in that grievance, and we concurred with that member that they were being shorted.”

According to Donohue, the MSCA then determined “the problem was broader than just one individual” and filed a chapter grievance. With further evidence, the MSCA determined “a similar violation of the collective bargaining agreement was occurring on multiple campuses,” and it filed a consolidated grievance.

Donohue said, “It is painfully complicated.”

Faculty are under contract nine months out of the year, but their pay is spread over 12 months. In the summer, faculty are paid for work they completed during the nine months of the academic year. Under the CBA, the academic year and all the work and pay associated with it begins on Sept. 1.

“What Framingham State and two other universities were doing was starting people on the payroll earlier – mid- to late-August,” Donohue said. As a result, faculty were receiving payment for the work they would contractually begin doing on Sept. 1.

When faculty left the University, they were taken off the payroll on the anniversary date of when they were first put on, said Donohue.

“If someone were put on the payroll August 20, they complete ‘x’ number of complete academic years, and they then leave the university, they would be paid through August 19 of their final year. This creates a host of problems,” he added.   

When a faculty member is first hired, the University is paying them for days in August at the lowest rate it will ever pay that faculty member. At the time the faculty member leaves, the university is often paying them a higher rate.

According to Donohue, with the payment date ending before Sept. 1, the university Is “trading the minimum salary the person is ever going to earn, for the maximum salary this person is ever going to earn. That’s problematic.”

He added under the CBA, pay raises are instituted on Sept. 1, “so for all of those increases, you’re supposed to get a full year of that increase.  

“But the way it was being distributed, everyone who was impacted by this situation was getting shorted. If you get promoted and then worked another 10 years, you should get 10 years of that promotion, compounded with your raises. The way the University was doing it, you would get nine years, 11-and-a-half months of that promotion,” he said.

Donohue added, “This unambiguously was wrong, was not appropriate under the collective bargaining agreement. People were unambiguously losing money they were entitled to. And then it became a question of how do we try to address this issue.”

The initial 2016 grievance was going to enter arbitration, and so the University agreed to meet with the union to reach an agreement that would resolve the concerns, said Nechipurenko.  

She said, “There wasn’t a calculation error. It was that we had a practice of paying people in a certain way for bi-weekly pay periods.”

Nechipurenko said, “We would figure out in HR what the bi-weekly payroll was for that particular academic year, and we would set faculty up so that they would get paid – it could be, depending on the year that you started and the way that the payroll calendars fell, August 25. It could be August 26. It just depends on what the pay dates are.”  

Dale Hamel, executive vice president, said given the bi-weekly pay cycle, it can take some time before a faculty members receives a paycheck. “I think what we were doing was basically putting people on the pay period when it started right before the first so you didn’t have this huge wait period. But it was a long time ago when this practice started.”  

Nechipurenko added, “The union contended that we should be using a 9/1 start date, and so that’s what we agreed to.”

As part of this agreement, faculty who began after the 2013-2014 academic year – when a new payment scheme was instituted – would have this change reflected in their pay. This was done so they would only be paid for a year of work, not one year in addition to however many days they were paid in August.

This was decided by the union and Framingham State University administrators without consulting the faculty it would affect.

Hamel said, “The faculty are receiving their full annual pay. It’s now, having responding to the grievance, how to address moving from one date to another. … There is no financial impact. It’s a timing impact of the adjustment that would occur.”

Faculty argue they should be compensated both for their complete academic year of service starting Sept. 1 and the time in August.

Sánchez-Connally said new faculty in particular are doing a lot of work during this time. The University is “billing me, personally, for 8 days – Aug. 25 through Sept. 1. I owe $2,000.”

“In the meantime, if I had been completely new to this university,” she said, “I would have had to come in and pick up my laptop. I would have had to go to orientation. I would have had to come to a department meeting. I would have had to meet with human resources to do onboarding training. I would’ve been online, setting up my email, my Blackboard site. I would have been arguing with ITS so I could get my password corrected. So many numerous things.”

Rincón agreed. She said, “I think it’s a reasonable expectation as a new faculty member to think that you’re going to be paid for that. At no point was I told faculty orientation was optional.”

She added, “The issue is that this has been the practice historically … All faculty when they are new, they are doing this prep work. So, it made us believe, at least for this group of people, that we were paid for that. Apparently, the expectation was that we do this for free.”

Donohue said by filing the grievances, the MSCA was trying to ensure faculty were getting the full amount of money they were due for an academic year, because “that’s what we understood the problem to be.

“I know that people put in work before Sept. 1. We all do. We’re all working all summer – in terms of our research, preparing for teaching. We don’t walk in on Sept. 1 and that’s when we first start thinking about what we’re going to be doing for the semester. That’s different from being required to come in for mandatory activities,” Donohue said.  

Donohue said even if they had known new faculty were coming in to do work before Sept. 1, the union would have been unable to file a grievance. Before Sept. 1, new faculty are not technically members of the MSCA, and “the union does not have legal standing to intercede on their behalf.”

He added, “It’s not a matter of whether we would like to or whether it’s moral.” The union is also unable to file a grievance retroactively once faculty officially join the MSCA on Sept. 1.

“The union is legally constrained in a lot of ways that prevent us from doing what people might consider ‘the good.’ We were assuming the appointment letters said Sept. 1. So, anyone who was here before Sept. 1, they were here as individuals, not in the bargaining unit. Therefore, they’re not protected by the collective bargaining agreement.”

However, the MSCA recently learned the University was in fact appointing faculty in August, not just putting them on the payroll. “We’ve seen now appointment letters from faculty whose initial letter of appointment lists them as being on the faculty as of a date in August.”

According to the CBA, faculty cannot be appointed until Sept. 1, when the academic year begins.

“The union’s perspective is that this is an unambiguous violation of the collective bargaining agreement,” Donohue said. “The truth is, for the impacted faculty, they were here working as employees in August, and they deserve to be paid for those August days and 100% of the academic years following those August days.”

He said, “The characterization of these faculty being pre-paid is, in light of these appointment letters, clearly incorrect. They were being pre-worked.”

With this new evidence, Donohue said they are in a “legal gray area.” It is unclear whether, due to the appointment letters, these faculty would be considered members of the MSCA before Sept.1 – and could therefore have a grievance filed on their behalf – or whether they would only become members of the MSCA when the CBA defines them as having started.

He said this is something an arbitrator would need to decide.

Donohue said, “One of my failures in this whole process was focusing solely on the money and being able to look at the numbers and say, at the end of the day, people were getting paid 100% of the pay they were due for the academic years they were here, assuming they began Sept. 1.”

He added, “And I didn’t understand how people would, quite reasonably, be violated by being told they weren’t due everything they believed they were due.”

Donohue admitted the union likely would have realized sooner faculty were being appointed and asked to work before Sept. 1 had it adopted a “bottom-up approach,” instead of concentrating on the leadership.

He added, “I think all of these members are demonstrating what I always should have known was the power of the union: the members. I think they are going to get, in short order, a better solution than the leaders were able to achieve over a two-year, drawn-out, brutal negotiation, which I believe is a lesson that should be learned and broadly applied.”

Sánchez-Connally said, “I think at this point it’s very, very difficult to trust either” the union or the University. “I don’t feel protected.”  

She added, “My question is: how are you going to fix this, and how are we going to move forward so that you can gain people’s trust again?”

In a letter to faculty sent May 8, Virginia Rutter, sociology professor, and Xavier Guadalupe-Diaz, criminology professor, said, “The MSCA is asking for the grievance to be reopened, and the aim is to get a different outcome.”

They added President F. Javier Cevallos “has shared his interest in producing a good outcome for faculty regarding those August days, and we understand that the path available now is reopening the grievance and investigating possibilities to that end. We will get you more of what we learn as it emerges.”

An MSCA meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 15 to further discuss the ongoing situation .