Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dad Heads Off to Jail after Payroll Department Screws Up His Child Support Withholdings (or Something)

In my previous life as a Director of Human Resources, I was responsible for overseeing the payroll function, which also meant occasionally processing payroll when the regular processor was sick, on vacation, or perhaps on maternity leave.

One thing I quickly learned about payroll is that no one has any respect for the complexity of it. Because there are sophisticated programs that calculate taxes and because many employees (salaried and hourly) receive more or less the same pay each period, people who’ve never processed payroll think it must be pretty easy, and anyway, accurate payroll is an entitlement, right? Getting your check correct is the least your company can do, wouldn’t you say?

But that’s the problem with payroll. It’s as subject to human error as any other company process you can name, but nobody wants to hear that. And while it’s true that you don’t need an IQ in the stratosphere to learn payroll, it’s not all rote, either. In fact, the quickest way to make a bunch of mistakes is to treat payroll as though it’s rote, because change happens all the time.

Employees come and employees go, wages increase and wages decrease, benefits change or benefit costs increase, bonuses have to be processed, and employers routinely receive notices of court-ordered garnishments. Or sometimes they don’t but should have. Or maybe it's not entirely clear what happened. 

Regardless, now someone's Dad is going to jail, and news outlets have picked up the story (which sounds odd, and I can’t help thinking we’re missing something here), but in any case the point still stands—not rote.

As reported in the Huffington Post, Clifford Hall, a father living in Texas, received notice that he was behind nearly $3000 in child support payments. Apparently, Hall’s automatic payroll deductions had him underpaying for over a year.

After receiving the notice, Hall promptly paid the overdue amount and an extra thousand (just to be on the safe side) but ended up in court anyway. “Opposing counsel” (The Huffington Post calls it “opposing council,” ha ha) wouldn’t agree to a settlement, and the judge ordered Hall to go to jail and serve the maximum six-month sentence.

I don’t get this. I’ve handled many a child-support garnishment, and in my experience, notices are sent regularly, not just once in a blue moon. I mean, we'd routinely receive monthly “updates” for the same case even if the support judgment hadn’t increased or decreased one cent. 

(Is it possible Pennsylvania is more thorough than other states? Hmmm … no offense, Pennsylvania, but I have a hard time believing that.) I don’t know, but something doesn’t smell right about this case. (The writers on Snopes.com aren't taking it entirely at face value, either.)

Regardless, Mr. Hall did bring his account up to date, so what’s the point in sending him to jail, where (presumably) he won’t be earning an income and will get behind in child support again?

And if I’m in payroll at Mr. Hall’s employer, do I feel awful right about now or what?