Working Without Pay

University has been unresponsive to students’ pleas for hard-earned cash

For the last month, dozens of student employees have been working without pay. A flawed computer system has left some students who toil in Harvard’s libraries, museums and research labs unpaid for untold hours of work. Even worse, the problems with the new PeopleSoft payroll system have been left to fester as administrators and computer consultants try to figure out what went wrong.

These problems are only the latest episode in the fitful computerization of Harvard’s bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the University’s Office of Human Resources and the Student Employment Office (SEO) should have made a better effort to fix these problems and lessen the burden on students who have had to put off purchasing books or paying bills. The SEO and the department of human resources have begun to address the problems, but these efforts are both too weak and too late.

The University has taken nearly a year and a half to bring the new payroll system on-line. It was chosen to streamline paychecks so that students working more than one job at the University could receive one paycheck for both jobs. Until this summer, students sometimes received a different paycheck for each job they worked. When it was finally brought on-line in late September, the system proved confusing to some students. Even worse, reports began to pile up that students were not even getting paid for their work. Although the old system—really an amalgamation of several different payroll systems—was unwieldy, it was irresponsible of the administration to switch to the new system without testing it beforehand.

Harvard’s Office of Human Resources initially responded to the problems by claiming the project had gone mostly smoothly, despite widespread student complaints. Even worse, it has continued to drag its feet on fixing known problems. For example, students who work as referees for intramural sports have spent weeks trying to get the University to cough up their wages. As of Tuesday, it was estimated that the referees were owed over $4,000 in back pay. The SEO has begun to issue off-cycle paychecks, but some students have reported errors in their checks when they arrive.

The old payroll system needed to be upgraded, but the current transition left many students without their money and without any clear way to get it. The SEO and the Office of Human Resources need to take vigorous action to solve the systematic problems that have arisen with the new payroll system. Instead of trading blame, the software vendor and the administration need to sit down and figure out how to make the system work. For students on a tight budget, not getting paid can be a serious problem. We hope the University keeps this in mind as it scrambles to fix the payroll mess.