A day in the life of payroll

A peek into the working lives of three busy payroll professionals

As payroll professionals celebrate National Payroll Week, Canadian HR Reporter sat down with three practitioners to find out what they love and loathe about their jobs and the challenges they face in their day-to-day activities.

Christine Anderson
Payroll specialist
DRS Technologies Canada
Carleton Place, Ont.

Sometimes Christine Anderson longs for the day when a pen and paper were all she needed. For the payroll specialist at DRS Technologies Canada, technology can often create massive messes of data that take hours to clean up.

A subsidiary of DRS Technologies, a Parsippany, N.J.-headquartered defence equipment manufacturer and supplier, DRS Technologies Canada employs 280 people out of two plants in the Ottawa area. Anderson works in the five-person department of finance; the company’s HR department is staffed by three people.

When Anderson joined in 1991, she was neither in payroll nor HR. She was doing clerical work in the engineering department, worried about her next move after her temporary contract wrapped up. A full-time, permanent position in accounting opened up and she took it. That was where she rediscovered her interest in payroll.

“I like the interaction with the people. There’s more interaction with employees,” said Anderson, who now holds an accounting certificate and a payroll manager certificate after another four years of part-time studies. “The challenges are different. In payroll, the deadlines are strict, there are all sorts of legislation you have to stay up to date on. In payroll you’re always learning.”

But the biggest challenge Anderson faces at her work involves wrestling with the material resources planning software the company uses. Through the use of barcoding, the system keeps track of all the company’s resources and operations. Employees working on a project, for example, log in at the start of the day by scanning the barcode assigned to the project. The system keeps track of hours worked on each project, information which goes into billing systems, project costing systems and other financial controls.

Data entered via the barcoding system also gets transferred into the time sheet software. That’s where headaches can begin. If the barcode data is incorrect, it’s not a simple matter of going into an entry to make changes. Anderson would have to discuss the problem with a supervisor, call in IT and have the entry deleted and then correctly entered again.

For example, an employee on vacation the Monday after Canada Day somehow had that vacation day entered into the barcode system as a working day. The system then credited her for those 7.5 hours, plus another 7.5 hours for the statutory holiday.

“So the person was getting paid overtime when she really didn’t work,” she said. What’s more, those credited overtime hours then showed up on all the other days remaining in the week.

“So a process that should only take half an hour from start to finish could take upwards of eight hours,” said Anderson. “It was much easier when you could take an eraser to something.”

Linda Potter
Payroll officer
City of Brandon

Linda Potter loves her job so much she has to take time to think about parts of it she likes the most or the least. As payroll officer for the City of Brandon, employer of about 400 full-time employees and 300 seasonal workers in Manitoba, she gets to work with numbers and people at just the right mix for her.

As the one administering the pension plan, in particular, Potter often finds herself an information resource for people during life-changing moments.

“They have so many questions. Like after somebody (has) a death in the family, how they go and get life insurance benefits,” said Potter. “If they’ve just gotten married or if they’ve just had a marriage break up, they don’t know about changing their beneficiaries. So they’ll come in and we’ll sit down one on one and go through all that.”

These days, on top of training a new payroll clerk, Potter’s been busy calculating retroactive pay to apply rates from three new collective agreements, which took effect Jan. 1.

Probably the most frustrating part of her work is troubleshooting the miscalculations that sometimes seem to appear haphazardly in the payroll system.

“You can’t figure out why the system is doing something,” said Potter. “You’ve got it corrected but it comes back again. I don’t know if it’s the system itself but it might be working one pay period and not the next. We’ve had a few quirks in the system that’ll change the rate of pay for no reason. We don’t even know why.”

Some of these system mishaps have to do with a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system implemented in 2004, she said. Whenever the system undergoes updates, all the customization Potter has done on her end for union contracts seems to be wiped out.

“We still haven’t been able to resolve the issue. It works fine until the next update, which seems to clear out all the settings. We’re working through it,” she said.

The implementation of the system itself was an invaluable experience for Potter, who sat on the steering committee. If she has to do it again, she’ll know now to be more realistic about the timelines.

“When it was time to do training for the people doing data entry and keying, the programming wasn’t ready. So we had to keep pushing that back. The whole project was more complicated than all of us probably realized,” she said.

But the best part of her job is dealing with all the questions people come to her with.

“I find the one-on-one approach is much better. People are tired of the telephone system that says, ‘If you have this problem, then press that.’ They get so frustrated. They just want to deal with someone,” said Potter.

And even though she’ll put out the information on a campaign, such as the Canada Savings Bonds promotion she currently has going on, “a lot of them would prefer to come in and ask questions. It’s the human contact. And for me, it’s actually a good way to meet some of the staff.”

Georgia Kollias
HR/Payroll co-ordinator
Aeroterm Management Inc.
Dorval, Que.

Although Georgia Kollias wears both a payroll hat and an HR hat, 70 per cent of her time is taken up by payroll concerns. To Kollias, who works out of Aeroterm Management’s accounting office in Dorval, Que., the distinction exists only in name.

“To me, it’s all intertwined. Even when you do payroll, you’re never just doing payroll,” she said.

If someone comes to her asking about his income tax deduction, next thing she knows, he’s confiding about a divorce he’s going through and what that may mean to his pocketbook after support payments are deducted.

“Then you have to talk to him and become his psychologist as well. You’ll have to tell him, ‘There’s an employee assistance program that can help you,’” she said.

Headquartered in Annapolis, Md., Aeroterm Management Inc. is a real estate property developer specializing in air cargo transfer points. The company has about 75 employees in five locations in Canada and about 25 employees working out of 32 locations in the United States.

For Kollias, a busy day at work would be every other Wednesday, when the paycheques are processed. On those mornings she’ll settle in by first checking her messages. She then scans through a roster of journals and newsgroups to look for legislative or regulatory changes she needs to know. Then she goes through all the payroll registers from Ceridian, the payroll provider Aeroterm uses to process cheques in Canada. (In the U.S., payroll is done through the payroll process service provider Paychex.)

Kollias goes through each register, comparing it against her source documents — from contracts, job offers, void cheques she received from employees to time sheets approved and signed by supervisors and court orders for garnishments — and against Insync, Ceridian’s client-server HR information system. It’s seldom that she finds errors, but she doesn’t let that slacken her level of scrutiny. Errors only have to happen once for her to lose credibility, she said.

To help her handle the rigours of unforgiving deadlines and error-free track records, Kollias builds a lot of buffers into her work.

“I have to transmit by Tuesday at 3 o’clock, so I tell myself I have to submit by noon, which means I tell the managers that they have to submit their time sheets Monday,” she said.

Those buffers come in handy, because often someone would come to her on Tuesday to make a final change. When that last-minute change can be accommodated, “you look like a star because you’ve done something for them,” she said. “It’s one thing I’ve learned: under-promise and over-deliver.”

Things get really hectic from year-end through to RRSP contribution season in February. Those are times Kollias is reminded that she needs something else other than buffers, and that’s good working relationships.

That’s because, more often than not, she’ll only find out from a manager about someone’s bonus at a very late date — the last week before the contribution deadline.

“In that week, I have to get to the employee, they have to get back to me with their answer in terms of whether they’re going to contribute more to their RRSPs or not. I then have to turn around, cut a cheque and make a payment to the RRSP people,” said Kollias.

“And I’ll call them up and say, ‘You’re probably only going to get it on the very last day. Could you make sure that it gets through?’ You’d have to have a very good relationship with them because otherwise they may just say, ‘Too bad.’”

Like many in payroll, Kollias “sort of fell into” this line of work. With a bachelor of commerce degree in administration from Montreal’s Concordia University, Kollias first found an opening nine years ago at Enterprise Rent-A-Car where she was area co-ordinator responsible for accounts receivable. Payroll was part of her responsibilities. Gradually, as she moved more into payroll work, she also started to assume responsibilities for implementing HR policies as well. As playing a dual role continued to be a pattern in her career, Kollias decided to get both an HR certificate at Concordia as well as a payroll manager certification through the Canadian Payroll Association (CPA).

A major project ahead of her — one requiring her to put her HR hat on — is documenting all the HR processes and then writing down all the company’s policies in an employee handbook that she’s developing. She’s not looking forward to the policy-writing part of the job.

The part she does like is spending the time to answer all the questions employees might have. In July she had to field a host of questions regarding a federal tax cut that somehow resulted in lower take-home pay. Kollias would then take the time to explain how the income-free baseline also went down, resulting in increased income tax for the first tax bracket.

Kollias loves explaining numbers and tax rules to people. In fact, taking a cue from the pleasure she gets in answering people’s questions, Kollias expects to be teaching a certificate course next year for the CPA.

The way she sees it, doing payroll correctly and on time is no small responsibility.

“It’s people’s money. I could be sick with a 104-degree fever and I would still come in and get payroll out of the way and then go home and collapse for the rest of the day,” she said. “It’s people’s mortgages and bills, their food, shelter and clothing. If you think about that, it’s a very important job that we do.”

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