Don’t risk losing teachers because of payroll stress

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Almost half of Australian teachers are considering leaving the education sector, according to the findings from a survey of more than 4000 teachers, from the Black Dog Institute.

The report, released earlier this year, revealed the shocking figure – it’s up 14 per cent from 2021.

“The data suggests we are looking at a profession in crisis,” Associate Professor Aliza Werner-Seidler said in a statement.

“Teachers are working longer hours with fewer resources and this pressure is building with an increase of burnout and time being taken off due to mental ill-health.”

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Appropriate pay is critical for teacher retention

News that a major university in New South Wales (NSW) has underpaid former and current employees a whopping $8m is likely to add fuel to the fire of this nationwide teaching crisis.

And with a report from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), released earlier in 2023, revealing more than $83 million in wage theft across Australian universities, it’s clear the University of Wollongong payroll issue is not an isolated incident.

The wage theft exposed in the report occurred in a variety of forms, including unpaid overtime, teaching misclassification and sham contracting to undercut Award and Agreement entitlements.

Although there is no suggestion that the latest payroll issue at University of Wollongong (UOW) is deliberate, the institution has called in a costly external audit as it seeks to repay its workers after announcing it had discovered “anomalies” in payment to staff stretching back to 2016.

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A UOW spokesperson said that, although the extent of the underpayment was not known, it estimated 6000 workers – including many teaching staff – were impacted. The error would cost the university $8m in back payments.

According to the UOW spokesperson, the payment issue affected both casual and non-casual staff and related to a range of payroll issues, including mistakes in payment of shift penalties, and long service leave accrual, as well as exit payments and leave deductions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The university is committed to ensuring staff receive the payments they are entitled to and is moving swiftly to ensure compliance with its enterprise agreements and relevant workplace laws,” UOW said.

It’s a major blow to the UOW budget and follows another 2017 payroll issue for the university, when the discovery of an underpayment of superannuation entitlements saw the university forced to find $10 million for current and former employees.

“The university is committed to ensuring staff receive the payments they are entitled to and is moving swiftly to ensure compliance with its enterprise agreements and relevant workplace laws,” UOW said, of the latest errors.

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The NTEU reports that almost two thirds of university staff work on casual or fixed-term agreements – a situation that can make payroll management complicated.

According to the NTEU’s findings, universities often underestimate the time it will take casual staff to complete tasks, including marking or lesson preparation. And with employees on fixed-term contracts often reluctant to speak up and risk their unstable employment, problems with payroll are often overlooked.

Criminalisation of wage theft

Victoria is one of only two Australian states – along with Queensland – that has criminalised wage theft, although that is set to change, with the extent of the wage theft the NTEU report revealed prompting many to question when Australia can expect to see national criminal wage theft laws.

In the closing section of the NTEU report, the recommendations include that government ensures the next tranche of IR reform includes “strong criminal penalties” for organisations engaging in wage theft – including jail for the most serious offenders.

The union also recommended holding inquiries to find out how underpayments in these cases occur and how better governance structures could be reformed to solve the problem.

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How to eliminate underpaying employees

While the NTEU called on universities to convert casual staff where possible, it also acknowledged the complexity of universities’ business models and the necessity of employing staff on a variety of contract types.

In order to maintain compliance, Sadler offered three practical tips for employers to conduct proactive payroll compliance:

  1. Commission regular audits into your payroll
  2. Invest in contemporary payroll and time/attendance systems to ensure accurate and robust record keeping.
  3. Check your rules. Misclassification of employees is a very common occurrence that leads to underpayments, as is the incorrect application of rules to particular circumstances. Payroll will be processed in accordance with its programming, i.e, the rules that are entered into it. Get one wrong, and you have an ongoing non-compliance loop.

“All organisations are at risk of underpayment issues, not just the big and seemingly complex ones,” she said.

But for the education sector, with so many other issues already putting teacher retention at risk, investing in solutions to reduce these risks is a smart move for school and university administrators.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]