Here’s your Xmas bonus! Oops, sorry, you have to pay it back

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Here’s your Xmas bonus! Oops, sorry, you have to pay it back

National Health Laboratory Service wrongly paid employees in 2015. Two years later, they have been told to pay the money back

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When National Health Laboratory Service employees in late 2015 noticed that money had been deposited into their accounts, they thought Christmas had come early.
Little did they know they would have to pay back their “bonuses” two years later. 
The affected employees, who are mostly from the NHLS office in Limpopo, said they only received letters at the end of last year notifying them that the institution was recouping the funds. 
The amounts of money that was deposited on November 26 2015 differed depending on the employee’s salary scale. Some received around R10,000 while others received less or slightly more.“We were all shocked when we got those letters almost two years after the transactions.  We had already forgotten about the money, and then now we are asked to pay it back. It’s totally unfair,” one of the employees said.
In a letter with the subject “Reward and Remuneration Project (Debt Recovery)” sent in September 2017 by NHLS acting CEO Mpho Mphelo to the employees, he said there had been some “miscalculations” when money was paid into the employees’ bank accounts in 2015.
“I refer to the R&R project implementation in 2015, which subsequently led to you receiving incorrect payments ...  Unfortunately we had contended with some miscalculations on back pays, resulting in paying you the incorrect amount,” part of the letter reads.
On January 16 the employees were again sent letters by the human resources executive manager, Mojaki Mosia, dated December 1 2017, alerting them that the first batch of debit will go off the same month.
NHLS spokesperson Tebogo Seate said the institution alerted the employees to the error in April 2016. He would not expand on how the mistake happened.
“During the consultation process, NHLS engaged a wide-ranging number of stakeholders including Organised Labour and the South African Revenue Service (SARS). An agreement on repayment plans was reached between the NHLS and its employees, taking in to account that each employee faced unique financial circumstances,” Seate said.He said all stakeholders explored various methods of minimising the financial impact on employees. Among the options Seate said were considered was consultation with SARS regarding the tax portion of the overpayment.
“Individual repayment arrangements are now in process. Additional audit processes have been put in place and internal controls have since been significantly improved,” he said.
However another employee said there was no proper consultation with workers and that many had not yet made payment arrangements.
“Some people made arrangements with them to take the money monthly but there are others who did not make the arrangements as the letters were received in January way after the payroll cut off date.  We still don’t know which criteria they used to deduct from such people,” the employee said.
The institution last month started to debit the money back from the employees.In the letter, Mosia alerts the employees that the repayments were effective from January 1  for a maximum period of six months.
“We reserve the right to deduct the maximum of 25% of the remuneration … should we not receive any alternative arrangements from you by 5th January 2018,” the letter reads.
Labour expert Terry Bell said the incident should be opened to negotiation between the workers and the institution.
“This can happen and has happened before but it is not the responsibility of the workers and is open to negotiations.  If they were overpaid they should discuss how it should be paid,” Bell said.
He said that it is, however, unfair to penalise or punish workers for a mistake that was made somewhere else. 
“The law says if you were overpaid, even in error, you probably have to repay it.  If there isn’t a lot involved here, for good labour relations it would be best to write off the debt and therefore not penalise the workers,” he added.

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