Overpayment, whose responsibility?
October 13, 2014 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Hey Metafilter, I have a thorny question about who has the responsibility to redress an overpayment situation, I hope you can help!

I'm in Australia at a Go8 university - recently I've switched from being a research assistant to studying full time for a PhD. I duly notified my institute's HR department of my resignation - signed a form, had my supervisor sign off, all that - and the fact that my duration as a PhD student would commence immediately after I had resigned. The next two pay cycles I noticed I was getting paid for both my research assistant rate (albeit an irregular amount) and my PhD stipend, but I assumed this was due to some discontinuity in the pay cycles - it took a while for me to start getting paid when I first was employed.

About a month later now, my supervisor says that there's been some mistake and that I would probably have to pay back the research assistant pay that I had received. I've spent some of my last couple of pays on things like a new bed and other household stuff that needed attention, so I'm pretty broke and can't pay it back without going into significant credit card debt which would take forever to pay off on my PhD stipend.

Has anyone experienced a similar situation? How should I proceed? I feel like I acted in good faith and that the fault is the university's; however, my RA pay came directly from the grants that fund my research group, so my supervisor is on the hook for the money. My best case scenario is that the university admits fault and pays the money back to my supervisor, but I don't know whether that's realistic.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Work & Money (16 answers total)
Can you go talk to an admin? or HR? Or whoever oversees the paycheques and budgets? Don't trust your PI on this entirely...
There ought to be a cushion within the departmental budget to "pay back"your PI directly if he needs it, although I doubt he will in the next few months. What I would propose to the HR people is to essentially garnish your Ph.D stipend for as many pay cycles as is needed to pay back the excess wages you received. Yes, this is their fuck-up, but if it is coming out of your PI's account, the money needs to be there some how.
The key point is that you shouldn't have to be on the hook right now for the whole sum. If, given wodgy accounting they can't devise a gentle garnishing, work out with them a pay cycle give back, wherein you give them a cheque for 100-200 dollars each month, after you've been paid.
After you've gone and talked to admins, remember, this is their problem, not yours, and the best they can do is make it not too much of a hassle for you.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:13 PM on October 13, 2014

You should absolutely talk to the NTEU and your postgraduate student association about your pay as a research assistant and your new position as a PhD student. I'd be *shocked* if you as a research assistant were made to repay this kind of thing---given that both you and your supervisor signed off the paperwork---and I'd see it as grossly unfair. Don't, whatever you do, pay a cent back, until you've talked to one or both of them.

Incidentally, if the PhD stipend is an APA or a university scholarship, it's very unlikely that your department has any responsibility for it: it's funding that's coming directly either from the Commonwealth or the University, and you should see it as a living allowance, not pay.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:19 PM on October 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

How much back pay did they owe you from when you started the gig?

Calculate that. They may still owe you back compensation. (I hope!)

Otherwise, you probably should not have spent money that wasn't yours. Next time bring the issue up right away, don't wait for the other party to "catch" their mistake.
posted by jbenben at 9:20 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Setting aside moral or legal responsibility, this is now a "thing" for your supervisor which will remain an open loop until it is in some manner resolved. If your supervisor's good will is important to you ...
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:23 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fair warning: I don't understand exactly how your university system works, so everything I say is just based on what I think I understand from your description.

Are you comfortable enough with your supervisor to discuss what you just told us directly? If so, I'd do just that, and the two of you can can formulate a plan of what to do.

If you don't think you can talk to your supervisor, see if there is some financial counselor in your university system who you might be able to talk to openly about this thorny matter. Or talk to someone in your institute's HR department as Cold Lurkey has suggested while I was writing this. They may not know as much about it as your supervisor, but you clearly need somebody that understands the ropes to discuss this with.

Unfortunately, what it sounds like is that your were paid money by the university that you weren't due. Whether or not you understood that is a little hazy, but I think it's extremely unlikely that the university will just decide to eat the cost. You're going to have to pay that money back. If you explain that you were confused by the whole scenario and act proactively to resolve things, hopefully you'll be able to work out a repayment plan over time. Go take steps quickly, and do not try to lay blame on the university. Even if they made a mistake, it's still their money, and probably the only thing they owe you is some time to square things away again.
posted by KinoAndHermes at 9:27 PM on October 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Regardless of who is at fault this is one of those unfortunate "shit happens" scenarios where you're going to have to pay the money back. Best you can do is talk to the right people in the right way and figure out a reasonable repayment plan.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:29 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think you probably want to talk to them, explain the situation, and work out a repayment plan.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:30 PM on October 13, 2014

Something like this happened to me, I asked about it and found out it was a mistake so I didn't spend it. Some paperwork happened cancelling the fellowship and payroll recovered the money from my bank account. They warned me they were going to do it, and then they did it, though I did tell them it was okay to do so. I assumed they had the right to do so under the various policies and contracts that govern these things.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:31 PM on October 13, 2014

Offer to work it off. Cash is not available, but maybe your time is.
posted by 724A at 9:42 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This happened to a friend of mine recently (probably at the same university you are at, I think). The university didn't notice the overpayment from his RA work for over a year, at which point he had finished his PhD and left. He spoke to the NTEU about it, and they looked into it. The advice he was then given was that a year is pretty much the statute of limitations on this sort of thing. He was not responsible for paying it back. (It was a few hundred dollars - I expect it would have been different if it was e.g. tens of thousands).

In your case it is more recent, so I think you will have to pay it. I am SURE you can get them to agree to a payment schedule, though, as it is a hardship to do it all at once. Talk to not only the NTEU but also PARSA if you get any push back.

My other experience of this was my husband who got overpaid twice at this same university. He did not notice it until the university did, and demanded the money back. Each time it was about three or four months later. He argued a bit but then paid it, but it wasn't a hardship for us so YMMV.
posted by lollusc at 9:47 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you were definitely overpaid, then I think that you have to repay it to whoever overpaid you. Yes, they messed up, but that doesn't mean you get to keep the money. Work out a payment plan to pay them back, so that you don't go into debt. In future, don't spend money that you're not sure really belongs to you.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 10:17 PM on October 13, 2014

The reason I mention PARSA, by the way, is that it is your status as a PhD student, trying to live off a scholarship, that makes you vulnerable to the hardship of having to pay back a lump sum unexpectedly. In my experience, university administration and HR are kind of blind to those issues, so you might need PARSA to advocate for you in order to get a reasonable timeframe and payment plan.
posted by lollusc at 11:45 PM on October 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

First, make them work for it. Make an appointment to sit down with someone in the payroll department, come with your dates and pay history. You can do this on a spreadsheet.

Then look at the debits and credits. They may be mistaken about the overpayment. If not, hey, now you know.

Ask if they could deduct $50 from your pay until it's paid back, or ask about some other way they might recover the funds.

Just because they say so, doesn't mean they actually overpaid you, so really research that first.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:46 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Did you know you were getting incorrectly paid and still spend the money? Are you fine leaving your supervisor on the hook for the money? Universities are pretty small environments do you want to piss off people in authority even if it is no longer directly over you.

Most HR people (or who ever is handling the money because it's a grant) will work a compromise with you to pay it back if you approach them with a plan. Say x amount per pay cycle, be aware if you are still working for the same University with the same HR Department then chances are they will just start doing a deduction, it would be best to get in early so you can have some control over how much they decide to deduct from each pay cycle. I know in general payroll situations in Australia (when I briefly helped handle them 10 years ago) that legal action can be taken to recover the money from employees that have been overpaid after leaving employment. Not sure if it applies here but something to be aware of.

I have vaguely heard that you can appeal such things if repaying will cause hardships in various government departments but not sure where you fall on that spectrum of hardship or technically being a government employee.
posted by wwax at 7:22 AM on October 14, 2014

I think you should do the research first. Make a spreadsheet showing every pay period that you worked and then the amount of every paycheck that you got. If it took a while to start getting paid, see if those first paychecks were higher than normal (they included your back pay and the don't owe you anything) or if they were exactly normal - maybe you can show that you worked X number of pay periods but they've only paid you for X-2 paychecks. They may still owe you that money.

But if you find that you have been paid for all your hours and then you got 2 more months afterward, yes, you have to pay that back
posted by CathyG at 9:16 AM on October 14, 2014

I guarantee you are not the first person at your university that this has happened to. Explain your situation with the registrar and they will be happy to work out a repayment plan with you. It's partially their fault and they will want to come up with a solution that works for everyone. Tell them you can only afford to repay $x per month. In the end it will be like you got an interest-free loan.
posted by Troupe of trained rats at 9:55 AM on October 14, 2014

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