Merit & PSA

Categories: Bargaining Updates 2019, Career Advancement, merit, Progress Through the Ranks

In addition to General Wage Increases and Career Progress Increments or salary steps, many of our members are regularly considered for merit awards and Performance Salary Adjustments (PSA). Merit and PSA are some of the more confusing features of our members’ compensation packages. We have made three proposals to rationalize, clarify, and simplify merit and PSA.

Merit

Each spring, the eligible members in each unit are ranked on their performance for the year, and those members high enough in the ranking are awarded a merit raise. (Roughly 45% of our members get a merit award each year). This goes into base salary, so a merit raise can make a big difference in earnings over the years.

Problem #1:
The Fluctuating Value of a Merit Unit:

A typical merit raise is one “merit unit,” but awards of other sizes do occur. What is a merit unit? This is actually calculated in quite a complex way; the result is that the value of a merit unit varies significantly from year to year. In 2009 it was $1,499. In 2016 it was $1,981; in 2017 it was $2,202. (It doesn’t always go up; in 2018 it went down to $2,167.) Suppose someone receives a merit unit award in 2016 instead of in 2017. Their base salary will now be $221 lower than it would have been if their merit raise had come a year later. And this difference will compound over the years, too.

A member’s earnings over the years can thus be dramatically affected by arbitrary fluctuations depending on in which years they received merit. We propose to simplify merit units. Instead of the baroque calculation presently used (based on the calculations used to determine the size of a CPI unit), we propose, starting with the 2020 merit unit value as calculated under the old system ($2,172), to lock in that number and then simply let it rise with GWI. If we negotiate a 3% general wage increase in 2021, then a merit unit will be $2,237 for that year, and so on.

Our proposal would smooth out the bizarre patterns of merit increment changes. Your merit raise shouldn’t be smaller in one year than it would have been in another solely because of these fluctuations of the merit unit calculation.

Problem #2:
The Arbitrary Annual Merit Window:

Consider three members, A, B, and C, in the same unit, with the same rank, starting salary, and length of service, the same teaching performance, and the same service records. Suppose they are in a department where for research faculty, two or more articles published in a year usually earns a merit award. Let’s look at a five-year period in which these three members publish the following numbers of papers:

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Member A  2 0 2 0 0
Member B 1 1 1 1 0
Member C 0 0 0 0 1

Member A will earn merit twice, but Member B will never earn merit, even though they have the same publication output over five years. Notice that Member B’s performance over time is quite unlike Member C’s, even though the merit pattern is the same: neither ever gets merit. This leads us to PSA.

Performance Salary Adjustment

PSA is the most fungible annual increase available in our contract, though its general function seems to be to correct for anomalies. Sometimes PSA is used to correct for real salary inequities created by compression or the like. Sometimes it appears to be used for retention. But most often, it is used to compensate for these unfair patterns of merit distribution. The current Collective Agreement language allows for PSA to reward “performance over a period of time which is worthy of recognition.” But it also specifies that “it is inappropriate to recommend PSA to compensate for salary differentials that result from the differential award of…merit awards.” This latter clause seems to contradict the use to which PSA is most often and helpfully put.

One of the central roles of PSA is, as the Agreement says, to reward meritorious performance over a longer period of time that is not captured in the merit process. This can easily happen, as we can see above, because merit awards only look at performance over a specific 12-month period, and usually only at works completed and published, projects or students finished, or grants newly won. Many of these benchmarks’ timings are out of our control and can be completely arbitrary: a journal delays an article by two months; a grantor moves a deadline; a conference falls in early April rather than in late March.

We think it makes perfect sense to confirm that a Head can indeed, as they often do, recommend PSA for Member B above when they notice that their productive colleague has been unfairly affected by the annual merit process. Recognition for your achievements shouldn’t depend so entirely on how they are distributed or clumped.

Our proposal on PSA is therefore to remove the current contradictory language, clarifying that PSA should rightly continue to be used to recognize achievements that aren’t captured by the annual merit snapshot. We also propose to eliminate the “market considerations” criterion currently cited as a use for PSA funds, since deans have access to a separate retention fund for that purpose.

Decanal Transparency

One problem we heard about from some of our members, especially Heads, is that sometimes, unit recommendations on PSA or merit are revised by the deans without explanation. Perhaps there are good reasons for these decisions, but in the interest of transparency, we think that such reasons should be provided back to the unit. Our proposal is to require that if deans award merit or PSA in a way inconsistent with the unit recommendations, they explain why.


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