UNC error gave staff extra leave

After audit, school forced to take leave hours from dozens, pay cash to others.

Staff WriterJuly 31, 2010 

— Dozens of employees with the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill are unexpectedly losing large chunks of their leave time this summer as the school attempts to balance its books after an audit revealed years of shoddy record-keeping.

The audit found that leave balances were accurate for just six of 64 workers employed in November 2009, when the analysis was conducted. In most cases, workers' time off for vacation, illness or other reasons had not been documented. In some cases, workers had been docked time off that they had not actually taken.

Now, the university is trying to get the balances straight by reducing or adding to work balances or, in some cases, either trying to pay or extract payment from former employees whose balances were found to be incorrect.

"The records have to be corrected," said Phyllis Pet ree, the university auditor. "We owe it to the taxpayers. Once we find an error, we have to fix it."

But some workers blindsided by the findings are crying foul. Forty-one workers stand to lose hours.

"There are a lot of people who have come to us, and we definitely have concerns, too," said Jackie Overton, chairwoman of the university's Employee Forum, which represents staff on campus.

Overton said she hopes the school and its employees can work together to iron out the differences. Several current and former employees contacted by The News & Observer declined to discuss the situation on the record.

The audit reveals a long history of poor documentation within the school. The first errors were found in 2002 and continued through fall 2008, when the university converted to an electronic record-keeping system, the audit states.

Until then, employees filled out time cards and another staffer recorded the information. That system proved problematic for many years; a collective 2,415 leave hours worth more than $63,000 were never recorded, leaving employees with far larger banks of time off than was accurate.

But 2,172 additional hours were recorded as leave when employees never actually took them, according to Mike McFarland, a university spokesman. Those hours are valued at $74,962, he said. Current employees will simply have their missing leave time added; former employees would actually be owed cash, said Petree, the auditor.

"If we underpaid them, we owe them more money and have to pay them back and will," she said, adding that no such former employees have yet been identified.

There is no appeal or grievance process for employees upset about losing leave time, McFarland said. However, employees can provide information or documentation to the school - if they have it - to make sure the records are changed accurately, he added.

Under North Carolina law, overpayments to state workers must be recovered and cannot be forgiven.

Leave banks for five workers will be reduced by more than 100 hours, while four other workers stand to gain 100 or more hours, McFarland said. Most employees, 34 in all, stand to lose 80 or fewer hours from their leave banks. These corrections are in the works now.

The problems arose due to faulty record-keeping as well as incorrect calculation of the rate at which a particular employee accrued time off, the audit states. And since employees cannot carry over more than 240 vacation hours a year, leave time is supposed to be examined on a regular basis. That didn't always happen, Petree said.

Until the university moved to an electronic records system in late 2008, employees were not routinely updated on their leave balances. It was not reflected on their pay stubs.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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