Air Force striving to get airmen paid right

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More than a year after a new personnel data system began to trigger an "unacceptable" number of pay problems, Air Force leaders have appointed a "pay czar" and mobilized personnel and finance people to fix and prevent pay problems.

A recent success: ensuring more than 150 new retirees -- some just released from Stop-Loss -- received their first retirement paychecks Sept. 1.

"It's the kind of thing we're getting a lot better at catching before it happens, but it's still amazingly complicated to fix," said Dave Ashton, a career personnelist who is back at the Air Force Personnel Center here after a 30-year active-duty career.

In June, the AFPC commander asked him to drop what he was doing to become the "personnel pay czar." Ashton accepted the challenge and now acts as the center's liaison to the air staff, installation personnel and finance offices, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, where all pay transactions ultimately take affect.

His task is to find problems, fix them, and find ways to get bad data out of the system before it does more damage to airmen's pay.

Military pay is complicated, said Ashton. Airmen receive allowances and bonuses that vary depending on such things as number of years in the service, qualifying bonuses and term of enlistment, Ashton said.

Pay problems range from people getting paid the wrong amounts to people having to receive pay "manually" instead of through standard electronic transfers directly into bank accounts.

One way to prevent pay problems before they happen is to detect disagreements between an airman's finance and personnel records. Officials estimate data mismatches may affect up to 40,000 airmen.

Individuals can help themselves by reviewing their monthly leave and earning statements, said Ashton. "That's something everyone should always do, every month."

But Air Force officials do not want to depend on airmen policing their own records.

"We want to prevent most of those errors from ever occurring," he said.

"We're dedicated to catching these problems as soon as possible because airmen deserve the best pay support we can provide," said Bruce Lemkin, the Air Force's second-highest ranking financial manager and co-chair of the Personnel and Pay Council.

Chartered by the secretary of the Air Force, the council guides Air Force pay improvement efforts.

"As a result of newly focused teamwork at all levels, the problems are becoming narrower in scope and easier to identify and fix," said Lemkin.

One of the council's visions is to initiate "one-stop customer service," which means airmen will no longer have to do the legwork carrying issues between personnel and finance offices, he said.

"We're going to take the problem and send the person home assured that we will pass the issue among the relevant offices for them...and keep them updated," Lemkin said.

"It's not their fault their pay record is not correct," said Ashton. "We shouldn't make it their burden to find the person that can fix it."

Extra training, increased communication, and "just plain hard work from a lot of our bases and the people here and in the finance world" will get things back on track, he said.

"We're still fighting to get to where the systems share the right information," said Ashton.

As a forerunner to the one-stop shopping vision, Ashton recently distributed a database that will help support "virtual" one-stop customer service. The program was sent to every Air Force base serving as an interim step until a central database, still under development, can be delivered, he said.

No single initiative can fix everything, Ashton said.

Sometimes it comes down to persistence, as it did with the 150 retirees who almost did not get paid.

"For that, it was just a matter of our retirements team here talking to a whole lot of people in a number of organizations and insisting on getting the system to do the right thing," said Ashton. "Because it's the right thing to do." (Courtesy of AFPC News Service)