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The Professional Staff Congress, which represents 30,000 faculty and staff at the City University of New York, has sued the public-university system over what the union claims is CUNY’s “repeated failure to deduct and submit employee pension contributions” in a timely manner.
CUNY is, by law, required to deduct its employees’ pension contributions from paychecks and submit those into either the Teachers Retirement System or the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association of America. But the suit says that for years, CUNY has not provided the pension systems with accurate employee earnings records.
The lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court earlier this month, noted that CUNY has failed to deduct contributions from retroactive raises received during the course of the 2010-2017 contract, an issue that is specifically affecting workers who have a pension through TRS. In 2016, the PSC ratified a pact that included a 10.4-percent wage hike and back pay, with the first raise taking effect in April 2012.
Because TRS uses age, years of service and the final average salary to determine monthly retirement payments, and since the pension system has not received updated salary information for retirees who were owed back pay, “CUNY has caused some retired PSC members to receive lower pensions than they are entitled to,” the suit is alleging.
CUNY stated that it “does not comment on pending litigation.”
PSC’s president, James Davis, said that the union has made several attempts over the years to get CUNY to resolve its issues around accurately recording employees’ earnings. “Filing a lawsuit is a last resort,” he told The Chief.
Retirees have also repeatedly demanded that CUNY address the problem, including at a 2018 Board of Trustees hearing. In 2021, a CUNY spokesperson told this newspaper that TRS required the university to provide the data in a different format, a claim TRS rebuffed by stating that the “requirements for receiving service and salary data from CUNY has not changed since 2017.”
The suit stated that CUNY has failed the “basic task” of making sure eligible employees are enrolled in a retirement plan, informing part-time employees — who are only qualified for a pension through TRS — that they must enroll in TRS at each college where they work, and has no system in place to ensure that employees who work at multiple colleges have all of their CUNY earnings accounted for.
Peter Zwiebach, the PSC’s director of legal affairs, said that CUNY’s payroll system is extremely antiquated and decentralized.
“Relatively simple things like an adjunct working at two campuses don’t get picked up,” he told The Chief, adding that some members have gone years without realizing there’s a problem.
Davis added that CUNY has been working to automate its payroll system for full-time employees, but has been moving “glacially slow” to do the same for adjuncts. He added that many of the employees who have been affected by these problems have been adjuncts, “who can least afford it” because they often lived paycheck to paycheck.
On the hook for thousands
The suit says that CUNY’s failures “have caused PSC members, through no fault of their own, to have to make ‘deficit’ employee contributions to the pension system … with their own post-tax dollars, as opposed to via pre-tax payroll deduction.”
“CUNY’s failures have also caused some PSC members to be slapped with interest charges by the pension system for contributions that CUNY should have deducted and remitted,” it continued.
Which is exactly what happened to Celia Sporer, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Queensborough Community College, she wrote in a recent Daily News opinion piece.
Sporer began working for CUNY as an adjunct at John Jay College, setting up her pension through TRS there, before starting at Queensborough Community College seven years ago. But TRS still had her listed as a John Jay employee, “and since I didn’t work at John Jay anymore — and CUNY schools fail to communicate with each other as they should — the administration at John Jay simply threw out the letters TRS sent them,” she wrote.
“I now owe $33,000 to make up for the seven years without deductions plus seven years of interest. That’s on top of my regular deductions,” Sporer continued. “And here’s the kicker: I’m not vested until I pay all of that $33,000.”
The union estimated that about 450 adjuncts were affected by CUNY’s failure to provide updated salary information. But the suit noted that CUNY “has not begun to process the retirement records for part-time employees who worked under the 2017-2023” contract, meaning that more employees have been, and will likely be, affected.
“The fact is, we really don’t know the scale or the scope of this,” Davis said, adding that members have been notified that they were liable for anywhere from $1,000 to upwards of $25,000. “The fact that they have not gotten around to resolving this issue from the 2010-2017 contract is outrageous.”
The suit calls for an audit to determine how many CUNY employees have been adversely affected by the pension problems over the last decade, for CUNY to make the affected employees whole, and for an independent monitor to be appointed to oversee CUNY’s reforms to its pension-related duties.
“At the end of the day, in the 21st century, our employees deserve to have a safe and secure retirement,” Davis said.
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