Recent news reports about the high costs of paying government employees for unused sick and vacation days have made some people a little queasy.

There was the president of a Massachusetts state university who in March retired, collecting, in addition to his pension, $266,060 for 1,250 unused sick and vacation days earned over his 46-year career.

In Massachusetts alone, as of 2015, taxpayers faced about $500 million in liability for unused sick and vacation time, wrote Charles Chieppo, former policy director for Massachusetts’ Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

The Wall Street Journal earlier this year noted a state police major who retired in October last year netting $142,315 for 242 sick days he never used. And in Florida, 45,000 state workers are due $154 million in sick leave payouts.

It’s all legal and on the up and up. Still, such reports are enough to send a taxpayer to bed with a nasty headache.

And while those six-figure examples are extreme, they serve as a cautionary tale.

Earlier this week, Galveston City Councilman Mike Doherty told The Daily News he planned to take a hard look at payouts to city employees for unused sick leave. Galveston city employees can accumulate unused sick days, roll them over to the next year and cash them in at retirement or when they move on to other jobs.

How much the city pays in sick leave depends on how long a person has worked for the city. The maximum an employee can accrue in sick leave is 720 hours. Employees have to work for the city for 1 to 5 years to get 50 percent of their hourly pay in sick leave; six years or more to get 60 percent and 10 years or more to get 100 percent.

It’s unlikely any Galveston employees will walk away wealthy by cashing in unused sick and vacation days, but it has the potential to be costly.

There’s nothing wrong with employees accruing sick leave or a reasonable amount of vacation. There’s nothing wrong with employers trying to curb absenteeism.

But paid sick leave was never meant to sweeten a retirement plan.

The city’s rollover and cash-in policy encourages people to work when they’re sick. That’s bad for everyone. One person with the flu can take down an entire department. When you pay for unused sick leave, you’re encouraging people to show up when they should stay home.

And some critics say it bestows privileges to those who are healthier, penalizing people with illness or disabilities who use their sick leave.

The issue arose as the city council works on new vacation and sick leave policies. In assessing the new rules, which would allow employees to accrue vacation in shorter time frames — a policy we support — some council members began to question existing rules allowing employees to cash in unused vacation days and sick time when they quit or retire.

“It’s expensive for the city to let people accumulate sick leave and pay them for it,” Doherty said. “I’m going to take a hard look at that.”

Mayor Jim Yarbrough also worries about the financial liabilities the city faces with the existing policies. Yarbrough has said he believes people should use all their vacation days or lose them at the end of the year. But he also thinks city employees should be able to accumulate sick days in case a major medical issue arises, but whether they should be paid for those is another matter, he said.

Yarbrough in a separate interview this week said he didn’t have all the answers or solutions. Should the city change the sick leave payout policy for new employees or should it be retroactive? Taking away a benefit employees have come to expect isn’t an easy thing, or even necessarily the right thing, to do.

There are several possibilities, Human Resources Director Kent Etienne said. Rather than take benefits away from employees, the city could freeze the amount of payout they’re already owed, for example, Etienne said. But that’s just a possibility and nothing has changed, Etienne said.

But leaving the policy unchanged and unchecked could lead to some hefty payouts down the road.

We urge the city council to continue looking at the policy and to adjust it to better serve everyone involved.

• Laura Elder

 Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

(2) comments

Richard Moore

The City and its related entities would be well served to align their leave time policies with those of the State of Texas (UTMB, GISD, GC etc.). There are far more employees living and working in Galveston that work for organizations which follow these policies than municipality related employees. It would be critical however to assure that other compensation related policies are also in alignment particularly salaries and retirement. There is a benefit to all of these entities in fostering similar policies so that there can be a “free flow” of talent between them.

Christopher Smith

Vacation, sick days and maternity/paternity leave is already abysmal in the US compared to other developed nations. I'm not sure sure that cutting or capping the reimbursement an employee is entitled to is really all that great for workers. Then again maybe it will encourage more employees to take more time off rather than go the extra mile and work more only to end up with a bunch of sick days they'll never get paid for.

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