WALLINGFORD — The town will be hiring a second payroll clerk, a position that was cut two years ago in what town officials say was a mistake. But the bigger issue, members of the Town Council said, is the “antiquated” payroll process.
Wallingford is one of the few municipalities, and employers in general, not to offer its employees the option for direct deposit. The payroll department processes about 500 to 600 checks a week, with more in the summer when Parks and Recreation Department programs are running, Comptroller Timothy Sena said. Two years ago, there were two payroll clerks in the office, but after one left, the other advised him that she could handle the job without help, he said, so he took her advice and took the second position out of the budget.
“That was a mistake,” he said. “It really should have never gotten cut. I had someone in there when I did my first budget, and she told me there was not enough work for two people and I listened. And then she quit like three weeks later.”
His executive secretary has been able to fill in when the payroll person goes on vacation, he said. But now his executive secretary has announced her retirement, so that fall back will soon be gone, he said.
“I am losing sleep over whether or not when my executive secretary retires whether we are going to be able to get payroll done or not,” he said, which led to the request for funding for the second position.
Councilor Christina Tatta said that while she supported the request, she believes the department needs to look for ways to become more efficient, with the biggest improvement being a system of direct deposit.
“I think we should look at some efficiencies, and I know direct deposit has come up in the past,” she said. “Having to reconcile 2,000 checks a month, that is a lot of time, and I don’t know if that is necessarily time well spent. Employees have been asking for direct deposit and I know it would be a lot more efficient.”
“I’m certainly not saying you don’t need the $25,000, I’m just hoping at some point we can look for more efficiencies where we won’t need to have two payroll clerks going forward,” she said.
Regardless of whether the town goes to direct deposit, the second payroll clerk is needed, Sena said, because direct deposit would lessen the workload to the extent where they could get by with one person.
“My office needs the body. Right now we have been having trouble filling the position. Luckily, I have had my apprentice accountant transferred over to the payroll department and she has been doing the payroll,” he said. “My safety net has always been my executive secretary. She has always done the payroll. She announced that she’s retiring, so I do not have a safety net. I need to use people on staff so that they can go on vacation.”
Switching to a direct deposit system is more complicated than it may appear, Sena said.
“We would all love direct deposit, but with a weekly payroll it’s physically impossible for us to do it,” he said. There are two changes that would need to be made, he said — the unions would have to agree to go to a biweekly payroll system, and all of the unions representing town workers would have to agree to go to one pay period.
“Police work Monday through Sunday and get paid on Thursday. Utilities work Sunday through Saturday and get paid on Thursday. Everyone else in general government works Thursday through Wednesday and gets paid the following Thursday,” he said. “For direct deposit, the best practice is to have it to the bank two days before in case something goes wrong. We might be able to do it, but it would be very tough,” he said, especially factoring in holidays.
Tatta said she has worked in payroll for 17 years, albeit for smaller companies, not for municipalities.
“I know when holidays do come up you have to work around that and plan for it.” she said. “But I know other towns are doing it. I understand the concern, but we are one of the only ones who are not doing it.”
In one case, workers in one union work until 8 a.m. Thursday morning and don’t return to work for four days, Tatta said. They either have to wait around until 11 a.m., when checks are distributed, or wait four days to get paid, she said.
“They’re not getting their check for four days unless they hang around for a few hours to get their check,” she said. “I hate that we are making our employees do that. And that’s just to pick up the check — then they have to go to the bank and cash it.”
The Board of Education employees are paid biweekly and do have the direct deposit option, Sena said.
Councilor Craig Fishbein said his concern is the town will create the second payroll clerk position but then, if direct deposit is instituted, it may later not be needed.
“I certainly think it’s possible to get all parties in the room and do something here,” he said. “If that happened, I guess the problem is that if you’ve created a new position, and you have filled that position and perhaps you’re not going to need that position in the near future, which very well may be a problem with the union. Is possible to do this on some sort of temporary basis?
“We all know there’s going to be a new administration, and there is going to be changes in some way, shape or form, and we don’t know where that’s going to be,” he said, “but if in six months from now, let’s just say direct deposit happens, we are going to have a problem I think. The union is going to say, you’re getting rid of a position and replacing it with electronics and they’re going to be looking for something.”
That won’t happen because the second clerk will still be needed, Sena said.
“Going to direct deposit is not going to create any less work,” he said. “Printing the checks is the least of what they do. I’m still going to need two people to do it.”
The clerks are not only responsible for payroll, but also for end-of-year tax forms, and they also run the town’s pension plan.
“Not only do they enter the payroll, they have to do the year end tax forms, the W-2s, 1099s and ACA’s,” he said. “Every time there’s a new hire there is changes. We also run our pension in house. I am asking for the position back that was mistakenly cut back. Going to direct deposit is not going to lessen the workload. we will just not be doing checks.”
Councilor Jason Zandri said one problem is the way payroll is done, with the clerks having to manually input the information from time cards into the system.
“I’m not suggesting this is anyone’s fault, but because of the way we do it manually, because of the way we do it on paper, it makes so that we could handle it better,” he said. “Overall, this sounds systemic rather than anything else.”
“Are we antiquated? Yes,” Sena said. “With the new administration can we try to solve some of these issues? I’m all ears, but I can only work with what I have right now.”