Sick Time: Long-standing Employee Benefit has Cost the City Thousands of Dollars over the Past Decade

June 29, 2011
By

For the past decade, the one common denominator from year to year within City government has been budgets that are consistently short.

Every year, it seems the state hits the City financially in one way or another, leading to cuts and compromises and speeches of doom and gloom.

However, according to records obtained by the Journal, in the midst of those tough times one little perk afforded to City workers has accounted for more than $500,000 over the last 10 years and, once broken down, is pretty much equal to the cost of one worker’s salary per year.

A long-held perk negotiated by the City’s unions allows retirees to have their sick days and vacation days “purchased” by the City, a practice totally unheard of in the private sector, but rather common in government jobs. In some cases in Revere, workers have collected just short of $20,000 worth of sick and vacation days at retirement, and many have collected well over $10,000.

Revere City employees and public safety employees get 15 sick days per year and an average of 3.5 weeks per year of vacation. If unused, those days carry over from year to year.

“It is a very good benefit negotiated by unions many years ago and frankly they’re not about to give it up,” said Mayor Tom Ambrosino. “If you want to get rid of it, you’ll pay for it dearly…It is costly, but it was negotiated. It’s probably a vestige of the past. These things don’t tend to get negotiated any longer.”

Michael Widmer of the Mass Taxpayers Foundation – a respected government watchdog organization on Beacon Hill – said that it is another benefit that’s out of line with the rest of the working world.

“It’s the kind of perk that was more common in the private sector many decades ago and has long since disappeared,” he said. “It is one more example of a public sector benefit that is out of line with the rest of the world. Clearly it’s not affordable; $50,000 a year is not a huge amount, but it’s the equivalent of a teacher.”

The local system is much the same as in state government, though there are some important safeguards at the local level that are missing at the state level. For example, Former MassPort Director Tom Kinton left his post recently with a payout of more than $400,000 in sick time buyback. While that extravagance could never happen in Revere, some employees are making out with some handsome payouts in what have been scorching tough fiscal times.

Here’s how it works in Revere.

When employees retire, many times they leave with sick days that they haven’t used. While most private sector jobs don’t keep track of unused sick days, most government jobs allow employees to roll them over from year to year. At retirement, those unused days are exchanged for a lump sum payment.

In Revere, employees get $50 per day for the first 100 unused days, and then $40 per day thereafter. The maximum amount a Revere retiree can collect for unused sick days is $12,500.

Sick days are the most lucrative and Ambrosino said that, as a consequence, many employees frequently save their sick days and use vacation days instead.

“Because of sick leave buyback, most people use their vacation days when sick,” he said. “If you have already accrued your five weeks of vacation time, then taking a vacation day doesn’t cost you anything.”

Vacation day buyback is much less lucrative.

Employees can only “redeem” five weeks of vacation time upon retirement, no matter how much unused time they’ve accrued. That is frequently why employees use vacation time when they’re sick.

In the past, however, Revere retirees could redeem up to 13 weeks of vacation, though that was stopped some time ago.

“You can’t carry more than five weeks vacation at any time or you lose it,” said the mayor.

Depending upon one’s seniority or rank, the five-week vacation buyback can range from a $4,000 to $7,000 payout.

Some of the biggest collectors of sick/vacation buyback at retirement have been firefighters, who often seem to leave with the most sick days and vacation days. That is perhaps because their schedules are so flexible to begin with. In Revere, currently, most firefighters work two days straight and then are off the remainder of the week.

By comparison, very few City Hall workers or Department of Public Works (DPW) employees have left with any substantial buyback monies in the last 10 years.

Those who have collected the most are:

• Former Deputy Chief Ron Cook (Retired 2011), $19,898

• Former Plumbing Inspector Bob Misiano (Retired 2009), $19,222

• Former Firefighter Jay Mazzola (Retired 2008), $19,046

• Former Firefighter George Slaney (Retired 2011), $18,459

• Former Firefighter Val Lanza (Retired 2011), $18,440

Over the last 10 years, a total of 56 employees cashed in sick/vacation time at retirement. Of those, 23 collected more than $10,000.

But that’s not it for the buyback program.

In addition to the retirement buyback, City employees also get an annual buyback for not using any sick days. The program costs the City about $200,000 per year, and is meant to award employees that do not miss work for being sick.

“It’s a program that’s been in effect for more than 10 years by ordinance,” said Ambrosino. “It’s actually a pretty good program and it works.”

Though time seemingly has passed by these buyback benefits for most workers outside of government, Ambrosino said it isn’t likely to disappear for government workers any time soon – as it is a well-established benefit and one that would be very costly to get rid of in contract negotiations.

“These are collectively bargained items and you may not like it and I may not like it, but they were negotiated into contracts and they’re not going to be eliminated in the absence of collective bargaining,” he said. “Given what the Legislature has done for health insurance bargaining rights this year, I can be pretty sure there’s no appetite to tackle this as well.”

Widmer said such systems tend to be abused – as reported above with using vacation days as sick days – and ends up further souring the public on hard-working public sector employees.

“The problem with a system like this is the potential for abuse and then they lose the original purpose,” he said. “They just become another benefit. It undercuts public support for legitimate purposes of government and all the hard work done by many, many public employees. The cumulative effort of this is very serious in terms of public trust of government.”

GO FIGURE

Some years, the City has paid a large sum to buy back sick and vacation days, and in some years they’ve paid nothing. On average, the payment over a 10-year period has averaged more than $50,00 per year. Here is a yearly breakdown:

2001 – $4,070

2002 – $0

2003 – $123,113

2004 – $29,145

2005 – $92,156

2006 – $6,457

2007 – $6,484

2008 – $62,621

2009 – $60,306

2010 – $77,565

2011 – $65,775

 

 

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