See more of the story

Faculty at Minnesota’s 30 community colleges are seeking $1.6 million in back pay under a settlement their union reached with the Minnesota State system earlier this year.

The Minnesota State College Faculty union has argued since 2010 that the system does not properly compensate members who take on added work such as overseeing independent studies, science labs and internships or chairing their departments. The union sued the system in late 2017, and this spring the two sides agreed to revisit faculty pay during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years, setting a cap on total payment claims at $1.9 million.

More than 250 professors filed claims by last week’s deadline, seeking about $6,200 on average. Matt Williams, the union president, said the process showed troubling disparities in how faculty pay is calculated among campuses — and a lack of training and support for employees who handle these payments.

“The surprise wasn’t in the number or size of the claims,” Williams said. “What surprised us was the inconsistency of practice across the system.”

The system, which admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, will review the claims in the coming weeks and determine whether to dispute any of them, a step that would involve having a referee weigh in on contested claims.

“We look forward to resolving this longstanding issue with the faculty union at our state colleges and continuing our focus on the success of our students,” Eric Davis, the system’s vice chancellor for human resources, said in a statement provided in response to questions.

Williams noted the system has also had a recurring issue with overpaying faculty — in some cases demanding significant repayments after the fact even though employees raised questions about their paychecks and were assured they were receiving the proper amount.

Since reaching the settlement in May, union staff members have crisscrossed the state to help faculty review their pay records and file claims. Union staff members met with 710 instructors; 23 filed claims of $15,000 or more.

Shawn Stoermann, a longtime instructor in the paramedic program at South Central College in North Mankato, found out last week the system might owe him more than $5,000 in payments for supervising program internships, according to the union’s calculations. Stoermann, who filed a claim on the eve of last week’s deadline, said his family has earmarked the money to offset unexpected expenses in the recent adoption of his baby son.

“I never knew I was being shorted,” he said. “It was an early Christmas surprise.”

Williams said by all accounts front-line staff members processing pay in the two-year institutions are doing their best to navigate what he called a “chaotic environment,” but it appears these employees lack adequate training and resources. Efforts to resolve inconsistencies in how pay is handled are a work in progress, Williams said.

“This issue is still very much a part of the system,” he said.

The union highlighted the case of Marie Sustacek, a biology instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, who filed a claim for more than $20,000 in back pay for 2016-2017 and 2017-18 work. The union says the college failed to properly pay Sustacek for supervising science labs and serving in academic leadership roles.

The union started filing grievances about the pay calculations almost a decade ago, arguing that discrepancies in how instructors were paid violated the contract between college faculty and the system. In 2016, the union took its concerns to an arbitrator, who ultimately sided with faculty in a binding decision. The union’s 2017 suit alleged the system had failed to fully abide by that decision. The settlement also mandated that the system make changes meant to ensure it correctly compensates faculty in the future.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781