Weird accounting

Something I now feel comfortable venting about, now that my PhD is over a year behind me, is their timekeeping practices.

At some point in the middle of my PhD, they started requiring that we record hours.  I (and other students) were pissed off about this, because we weren’t being paid by the hour, we were on fixed salaries.  Being salaried has the disadvantage that your employer pressures you to work long hours, because they know they don’t have to pay you overtime.  Being paid by the hour is better, but has the disadvantage that you have to record hours.  By making us record hours, while keeping us on fixed salaries, we were getting the worst of both worlds.

Once we actually started recording hours, it was even more ridiculous than we initially thought.  It was not possible to record accurate hours–the maximum number of hours I could record was about 20 hours per week.  This was supposedly because I had a “50% appointment”, meaning that half of my time was devoted to my position as a research assistant, and the other half devoted to being a student.  Which was not accurate by the way.  I wasn’t taking any more classes at this point.

It gets even worse.  When speaking with other grad students, we learned that the percentage appointment depended on arbitrary factors.  For instance, a foreign student had a 75% appointment.  We eventually determined that he was being paid more, but more of that money was going towards tuition, so in the end he was seeing the same amount of money.  Rather than accounting for this by increasing his hourly wage, our employer was accounting for it by increasing how many hours he was supposedly working.  And later, when I advanced to candidacy, I got a small pay raise, which was accounted for by increasing my 50% appointment to a ~53% appointment.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to record daily hours.  I would just record the total number of hours per month, and then digitally sign to verify that the information was accurate.  And if I forgot, then I’d have to fill out some paperwork and hand deliver it to another building.

One time I asked HR, what was the deal?  I did not get a helpful response.  We were required to report hours by some new governmental regulation (we were funded by the government).  I… I just don’t know.  One of my friends thought we were victims of wage theft, but I think it was just some ill-conceived governmental rule that nobody cared to follow outside of paperwork.


  1. Bruce says

    My guess is that these rules were created by your specific university, probably in their attempt to comply with a new government law. In the USA, it could have been a provision of the Affordable Care Act, intended to make sure employers give health care to full time employees, to prevent them from being exploited. That requires that they document who is a full time employee. It was the choice of the local university to do this in the way you describe. Even though a common sense interpretation might be that all grad students be paid adequately. But it’s never been done that way before, so they figure why should they let something like the ACA affect them?

  2. sonofrojblake says

    One time I asked HR, what was the deal? I did not get a helpful response

    What on earth made you think you might?

    Never forget: HR is a job where most of the actual work you do consists of saying to people one of the following:
    1. you know that job you applied for? Yeah, you didn’t get it.
    2. you know that job you have? Yeah, you don’t any more.

    Now consider the kind of person who looks at that work profile and thinks “Yes, that is what I want to do with my life.” I won’t go into my usual rant, but it’s safe to say they’re not the kind of people you should expect a helpful response out of.

    I’d bet folding money your hours recording scheme was their idea.

  3. Dunc says

    Hey, at least you’re not having to log per-customer, per-task entries, in two parallel time logging systems (with different rules), in 15 minute increments… Entries which are, in fact, largely fictional, and almost certainly never looked at in any detail, or actually used for anything meaningful. I used to spend at least an hour a week just on time logging. Time which – of course! – had to be accounted for, but couldn’t be logged directly (because time logging wasn’t a billable task) so you’d have to pro-rata it into your other tasks… A guy I used to sit next to built his own Excel-based time logging model to figure out what time he should actually log. (Don’t ask where he logged the time for that.) Total number of hours a month? Cry me a river…

  4. Maya says

    HR didn’t give you a full explanation, plus employer shenanigans.

    Grants and contracts from the US Federal government have stringent time-reporting rules, even for salary employees, ostensibly to avoid waste and fraud. When you apply for the grant/contract the government wants you to estimate the per-hour rate, and then the time reporting is used to make sure that your labor expenditures actually track that estimate.

    From what I understand, you’re supposed to adjust the per-hour rate monthly to reflect the total hours actually worked, but at the places I’ve worked at, my employers have found it’s easier to officially only authorize a set number of hours, and then treat anything beyond that as unauthorized and unreported work. (The second one tends to get employers in trouble when they get audited, because by the time keeping rules, all work must be logged, even if “unauthorized”. The other thing that gets people in trouble is the whole “normalizing” hours game.)

    From what I understand, the Federal timekeeping rules are uniform and require that timesheets must be updated by the end of the day with that day’s record, so an updated once-a-month record probably wouldn’t survive an audit.

    Dunc, I thought the same thing when I had a job requiring very similar tracking of time against tasks for customer billable-hours, and then I ended up in a job where I didn’t have the bullshit task codes, but then had to spend several hours a week writing reports itemizing tasks and justifying the hours spent. (Which of course, required more time than allowed in estimated overhead allowed for the grant so I ended up doing that work for free.) In the first case, even if I mischarged something, I would still get paid my salary at the end of the week. In the second, my employer refused to pay me unless they were perfectly happy with the report. (Needless to say, I don’t work at either of those places any more.)

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