Friday, November 30, 2007

$ Matters

The typical procedure when invited to give a talk at another university is for the invitee to get the plane ticket and then get reimbursed after the travel is completed. Lodging, meals, and other transportation costs are taken care of directly by the host institution.

I was recently thinking about all the professional travel expenses my husband and I currently have that have not yet been reimbursed. Including past travel that has yet to be reimbursed and future travel that won't be reimbursed until various times over the next 5-6 months, the sum is quite large at the moment: in the range of $7000. It is so large in part because the system has broken down a bit in terms of timely reimbursements for past travel relative to payments for future travel. In addition, because my teaching schedule is lighter in the spring term than in the fall, I scheduled most of my invited talks for next term. I just got a flock of plane tickets and loaded up my credit card.

For one talk I gave months ago but for which I have yet to be reimbursed, my hosts have been very apologetic but say that their departmental accountant has been deliberately losing receipts and taking a long time with all reimbursements. I have sent my receipt and social security number to the accountant 3 times so far. Methinks my department isn't the only one with a hostile zombie staff member. My hosts say that I am welcome to call their accountant and yell and/or whine, but that option doesn't appeal to me very much (yet).

The delay is annoying but not a huge problem for me. It occurred to me, though, that hostile zombie accountants could cause major problems for financially vulnerable people, such as some candidates for faculty positions (e.g., recent/current Ph.D. students interviewing at several/many places).

As long as there is a constant stream of reimbursements to offset the constant acquisition of new plane tickets, the system works pretty well. For me right now, the system is out of whack, with a drought at one end and a flood at the other. If things got dire, I would ask a host department to get my plane ticket for me, avoiding the reimbursement issue entirely. In the meantime, I will just try to enjoy the glorious adventure that is air travel in the U.S. these days, and not worry so much about $ matters.

29 comments:

Airwick said...

If you are dealing with local accounting folks within individual departments, then it is likely time to type up a past-due invoice letter type thing, and send it directly to the main university departments. Sure accountants like to play the game of paying invoices at the last minute (just like everyone else does paying their bills) ... but they wouldn't dream of paying a 'real vendor' late because the real vendors charge interest.

Y'all shouldn't stand for anything less. Over 30 days late in paying, request a fair rate of return interest. You should NOT be giving these institutions an interest free loan.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a financially vulnerable postdoc - I can't float even one conference (let alone a job hunt) on my credit card, so I get the dubious honor of paying interest on the balance until I am reimbursed. I wish there were *some* mechanism to address this cost.

amy said...

Yes, this has been a huge problem for the junior members of my department, especially for conference travel that is reimbursed by our own department. Our resident hostile zombie takes months to process reimbursements, loses receipts, and doesn't take money out of the proper accounts for the reimbursements. The junior folks are often strapped for cash and don't have large credit limits on their cards, so it is quite a hardship. Plus, the resulting credit card finance charges are not reimbursed. We've had trouble getting anything done about this, though, because the senior folks don't have as much trouble fronting large amounts of money and waiting months for reimbursement. Plus, our zombie somehow manages to get things done much more efficiently for tenured people -- she seems to know they've got the power.

JB said...

Try being a graduate student who has to foot the bills up front for conference trips, including airfare, hotels, meals, and then still have to wait months for reimbursements. Our professors are allowed to put their travel expenses on departmental P-cards, and then they don't have to wait for $$. At least the office staff members are always nice to me (even though the disdain they show my adviser, also a FSP, is palpable).

Ianqui said...

You know, I was just thinking about the same thing. I don't think I'm up to $7000, but maybe $3K or so. I don't really like this system very much at all.

PhysioProf said...

"Methinks my department isn't the only one with a hostile zombie staff member."

Every department has at least one hostile zombie staff member. What sucks is (1) if there are more than one, or (2) if the hostile zombie staff member is high enough on the administrative food chain to cause real problems.

Fortunately, in my department we only have one, she is only mildly hostile and partially zombie-like, and she is not a high enough level to affect me in any substantial way. One way to deal with a low-level hostile zombie is to refuse to interact with him, and only interact with his non-hostile non-zombie supervisor. This creates extra wqork for the supervisor, and creates an incentive for the supervisor to do something about the hostility and zombietude.

You have tenure, and are a very (the most?) productive member of your department, so this should be an effective strategy for you.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I'm very lucky in that my department will give me an advance for travel. However, it's not enough to cover the expenses for a meeting. I'm not complaining though because I know that many/most students don't get any departmental travel funds.

ScienceGirl said...

Yep, this is much harder on grad students. And we don't have as much pull as the faculty on convincing the zombies to *do their job.* Seriously though, why do the departments hire such terrible staff?

lost academic said...

It sounds like it's something that really needs to be addressed with some facts and figures at yours and others' departments. Perhaps it even needs to be addressed on a university-wide scale, who knows? The department chair, who is unlikely to understand the problem, unlikely to have experienced the problem, unlikely to understand at the same level the personal cash flow problems, and finally, unable to see the larger picture, could possibly benefit from some figures clearly tabulating and illustrating the time to reimbursement, number of lost receipts, total cost per month an average faculty member experiences due to the lag, and the extremes of those. It might not get anyone anywhere, but not trying didn't either.

Cherish said...

Isn't it obnoxious? I'm very unusual as a grad student because, having a gainfully employed husband, I can handle financial stresses that the other grad students can't.

I was really frustrated that the dept. secretary messed up on my first paycheck at the beginning of the semester and a huge portion was cut. I'm glad it was me, though, because for someone else, that might have meant not having money to pay rent. Unfortunately, it took 2 1/2 months to finally get the reimbursement despite going in after each pay day and asking if she'd processed things yet.

Anonymous said...

The worst thing for me recently has been that conference hotels in some resort areas (Aspen, Hawaii) often require HALF the lodging bill up front, six months before the conference! Of course you can't get reimbursed through your department until the trip has been completed, so in the meantime you're just out of luck. Even when the conference offers financial support for students, you usually don't get the money until you actually arrive at the conference.

On reimbursements for visiting other departments, last year I was actually OVERreimbursed from one of the places I visited -- so occasionally the mistakes do work in your favor. (However, I returned the excess money, which greatly surprised my host.)

amy said...

It would be kind of interesting to find out if women in the academic world also have to deal with more crap from lower-level employees than men do, and not just more crap from higher-ups. Do custodians and administrative assistants treat you differently than they treat your male colleagues?

Anonymous said...

Whatever differential treatment women might get from staff is more than compensated by their habit of staying only in the conference hotel at twice the cost of a hotel two blocks away because of "safety concerns." And, as a man, I just could never understand.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I'm in jb's situation as well. Here at LargeU, graduate students often have to choose NOT to go to choice meetings (often in choice, very expensive locations) because of all the upfront costs. My hotel bill alone was over $800 bucks for a recent trip, and I didn't get reimbursed for three weeks after returning--well after my credit card's payment date. While I do okay, many of my fellow grad students take out an extra credit card just to cover conferences. Ridiculous!!

Field Notes said...

Speaking as a financially vulnerable new PhD, if that happened to me for a job interview I would be freaking out about the interest accruing on my credit card while the evil zombie accountants try to clean up their mess.

Why can't department/unis just pay for the airfare rather than relying on the reimbursement system?

Anonymous said...

"Whatever differential treatment women might get from staff is more than compensated by their habit of staying only in the conference hotel at twice the cost of a hotel two blocks away because of "safety concerns." And, as a man, I just could never understand." -- anonymous 11/30/2007 08:49:00 PM

Charming. I'm female, and I usually roll my eyes at women who play the "you could never understand the pain of being a woman" card, but anonymous 11/30 8:49 obviously doesn't understand basic safety issues for women. I wish he'd been with me when I was followed to my apartment door (in the suburbs!) from the parking lot by a man with a knife, when I was followed inside a major city hotel into an elevator and assaulted, and when I was approached on a pier at a family seaside resort by a man with a gun. Yes, women's safety issues may seem crazy and over-the-top to men who haven't ever been followed or threatened, but they are very real. As someone who used to pooh-pooh this sort of stuff, I can tell you that I was very wrong to take it so lightly.

amy said...

anonymous - are you saying that women are *advantaged* by the fact that they feel the need to stay at the conference hotel because they're worried about their safety? Are you also saying that this compensates them for the worse treatment they get from staff? That's a very bizarre notion of advantage and compensation.

Rah said...

I live several hours from a major airport, and recently had a major auto breakdown on the way to the airport. Already carrying several previous pricey trips on my card, awaiting reimbursement, I pretty much maxed out my credit card for the repair. Once at my conference, I was forced to phone the university business office and ask them to make arrangements by telephone to cover my hotel bill. It was then that I learned the university has a credit card I could have been using all this time! However, in the future, my travel arrangements with *other* institutions are going to include the stipulation that any reimbursement taking longer than 30 days from the time the charge goes on my credit card will also require reimbursement of interest charges incurred.

Anonymous said...

ewwww. except for the grad students/post-docs, you people are all pathetic. Look at how privileged your lives are - THIS is what you have to complain about? YOU ARE BEING REIMBURSED TO GO TO ASPEN! Take out a low-interest rate card and just deal.

Giant babies such as yourselves make me embarrassed to be an academic.

Grad students & post-docs take note - these terminal whiners are your future colleagues!

EcoGeoFemme said...

anonlymous, it's not unreasonable to expect timely reimubursement for work related travel to a location that is not one's choosing. That's not whining. $3000-7000 is a lot of money to front your employer!

Global Girl said...

To anonymous who thinks fronting large sums of personal money for business trips is reasonable, even when the sums approach a month's salary or more: Everyone I know in the business world calls the travel department in the company when they need to make a trip. When they need a visa, a secretary appears, takes your passport, and then a few weeks later you get it back with a visa. Some secretary sends you tickets. The company has a deal with certain airlines, and it all falls into place. What exactly is your idea of normal business expenses?

Anonymous said...

It is reassuring to read about the other hostile zombies. My hostile zombie couldn't be bothered processing salary paper work for two months after I joined. What would faculty do without credit cards!

Tenured Radical said...

This is interesting, because at most of the places I have visited for talks and whatnot, my only reimbursements have been for cabs -- hotel and plane has been taken care of either by the departmental staff or a travel agent the university uses to make sure that they are getting the lowest possible fares (that still make sense in terms of timing, comfort and so on.)

I think it should just be a professional standard that universities do this.

TR

mike said...

If an organization treats you like this while it is trying to recruit you, think about how your relationship is going to be after you become its employee.

Anonymous said...

I share your frustration re:slow reimbursement; as a graduate student on the job market right now, the financial strain of such practices is great. However, I think we should be weary of the "hostile zombie" blaming. Sure, some staff members may be wilfully unhelpful (as are many of our faculty and graduate student colleagues, no doubt), but University staff are usually among the lowest paid workers in the institution, and in many place are not unionized (often not without efforts to organize that university adminstrations swiftly interfere with). Being paid minimum wage with terrible health care benefits and no job security can put you in a bad mood...

Female Science Professor said...

That's an important point; thanks for the comment. I do not use the term as casually as the term might imply, but it is important to keep in mind that some staff members do not have good working conditions.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous:"Whatever differential treatment women might get from staff is more than compensated by their habit of staying only in the conference hotel at twice the cost of a hotel two blocks away because of "safety concerns." And, as a man, I just could never understand."

I'm a female student and have never stayed in the conference hotel, and I've walked, or taken public transportation plenty of times by myself. I think you are overgeneralizing. Besides I know of several males who insist on staying at the conference hotel for various reasons.

As for $ issues, we as a group of graduate students have been asked to take out speakers, interviewees etc with no reimbursement at all. Going out to dinner can be nice but it can also be taxing to my income when we have several "guests" in a short amount of time.

Massimo said...

I am also currently in the red, approximately 2K, expecting reimbursements from institutions which I visited this Fall. In these cases, the bulk of the expense is really the air fare, and I wish it were possible, or more common, for the host to book my flight and pay for it.
Conferences are a different matter. They are becoming phenomenally expensive, especially if one wishes to have students and postdocs attend. I used to try and save a few bucks by staying at soem low budget motel, often far away from the main conference venue, but have come to the conclusion that it is not worth it.
For one thing, by the time one factors in a rental car (often necessary) and gas, the save is often marginal.
Secondly, an important reason for going is talking to colleagues, and physical proximity to where everyone is, is a major advantage.
For this reason I try to avoid large conferences and concentrate on small meetings, held at university campuses.

EliRabett said...

A significant part of my travel accounts payable is for my students' travel. I would never think of asking them to front airfare and hotel, however, I do not have a large group.

However, if you think you have troubles, try this guy