UPDATED: Jan. 11, 2019 at 10:21 p.m.
After roughly 3,000 graduate students received an erroneous stipend payment from Harvard in December, some incurred overdraft fees when administrators reversed the error.
Mistaken deposits appeared in students’ accounts beginning Dec. 14, and University officials discovered the error on Dec. 17. The Central Payroll Office — which handles wage and stipend payments for Harvard employees — informed current and former students who received the deposits about the error on Dec. 18.
The administrative mixup drew criticism from the newly formed graduate student union and prompted the University to evaluate its payroll procedures.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Swain wrote in an emailed statement that Central Payroll reimbursed students who mistakenly received overdraft fees — which result when money is withdrawn from an account and the balance drops below zero — and is “taking this as an opportunity to examine its internal processes and evaluate where it can strengthen controls to prevent similar errors in the future.”
“The University acted quickly to both correct the erroneous payments and communicate to the impacted individuals as soon as the error was discovered,” he wrote. “The University understands that while this payment did not impact any current student’s regularly scheduled stipend payment on Dec. 21, the erroneous deposit and payment reversal did create issues for some individuals and it has taken steps to address those quickly.”
Nineteen individuals have requested reimbursements — totaling $848 — as of Friday, according to Swain.
In a Facebook post, Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Auto Workers cited the cost these administrative errors posed to students as one reason they “need a #contractnow”.
“These administrative delays, errors, and oversight have big impacts on student workers’ financial status,” Belle Cheves, a union representative and PhD candidate in History, wrote in an email. ”We formed a Union so that student workers have the power to negotiate with the administration to respond to issues like these.”
Some of the affected students said the error caused only a minor inconvenience.
“The event didn't affect me that much beyond some confusion,” Jacob L. Austerman, a PhD candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology, wrote in an email. But he noted that “for a student living on a small amount of money, this overdraft fee could be a significant cost.”
Tsitsi M. Mangosho, a PhD candidate in History and a Law School student, said she got a notification about the deposit in mid-December, but, with her busy schedule and multiple accounts, did not realize it was an error. After she paid her credit card bills with the deposited funds, she incurred a $105 overdraft fee when Central Payroll withdrew her stipend payment.
“Initially, with the $105, I pretty much freaked out, because each day they charge you a certain amount if your account is in overdraft,” she said. “I ended up having to borrow from a friend so I could cover that $105.”
After Mangosho called, the bank reduced the fee to $35. She said she then saw a post on HGSU-UAW's Facebook page asking students affected by the issue to contact the union. When Mangosho reached out to the union, a union representative contacted Harvard for her to arrange a refund of the overdraft fee.
“I think if I had had to go to Harvard directly, I might not have done it,” Mangosho said. “Once someone from the union did it, it became much easier because I didn’t have to do anything.”