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Unused sick days make a nice parting gift for state workers

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott's jobs czar quit in January only six months after taking the position, taxpayers bestowed him a parting gift.

Doug Darling, a 15-year public employee who rarely missed a day of work, walked out as head of the Department of Economic Opportunity and cashed in his unused sick and annual leave. The payout: $64,000.

The sum is not unusual for high and mid-level state workers, many of whom roll over years of sick and annual leave, then cash it out in a lump sum when they retire, are laid off or are fired. Darling declined to be interviewed for the article.

In the budget year that ended June 30, the state paid out $51.7 million in sick and annual leave to state workers, even as it slashed funds for higher education and public school maintenance. About 28,000 employees left the state during that period.

The figure — which does not include state university and college employees — is only expected to climb as boomers retire. Critics say the system is out of line with the private sector, where few businesses allow employees to roll over their sick days or obtain cash payouts. Most private businesses will not pay employees for more than a few weeks of leave time, and will not pay for unused sick days.

"I'm a big believer you should use those days or you should lose them," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Sick days should be for emergencies, and vacation days should be used within that period of time they're allocated for."

Despite the cost, the state's sick and annual leave system has flown largely under the radar in recent years as the Legislature cut state worker benefits to fill budget holes.

High- and mid-level employees get 22 days of annual leave and 13 days of sick leave per year. Low-level workers have fewer days off and tighter caps on payouts. Each tier of worker has limits on how many days can be accumulated, and all state workers must be employed with the state for 10 years to collect sick leave.

The state cannot renege on benefits already accrued, and any future change would have to be renegotiated with state employee unions.

Doug Martin, a spokesman for the state employee union known as AFSCME, said he believes the rollover benefit is "modest" considering many public workers earn lower salaries than their private sector counterparts (studies comparing compensation show mixed results).

"This is not something we've advocated for increasing, but we also don't want it reduced," Martin said.

Many state employees see the system as a vested right, and some have squirreled away time for decades as insurance against getting sick. Those workers argue that such benefits help maintain a quality workforce.

But even politicians who oppose the payouts don't bother to propose reform because most savings would be years away, said Ray Wilson, a longtime former staff director for the Senate.

"It's not as sexy as cracking down on pensions, but maybe it's time to rethink … what is the purpose of leave?" he said. "Is it supposed to be time off or is it supposed to be a pocket pay raise?"

Payouts vary drastically across employee levels. And it only takes a few years for many senior managers to bank bigger end-of-service bonuses than many state employees' entire annual salary.

Take former Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater, whom Gov. Charlie Crist hired in 2007 as a deputy secretary of the Department of Health. After four years, she resigned from the $125,000 per year position. Her leave payout: $28,846. Berfield did not return phone calls seeking comment.

State employees are playing by the rules, but those rules need improvement, Wilson said.

There are nine different types of leave. Not all translate into payouts, but the policies may still work against taxpayers, he said.

"There's sick leave, annual leave, military leave, administrative leave, Olympic training leave," he joked. "There are more ways of taking time off than there are of going to work."

Another problem: The state can rarely revoke accrued time, even for those who leave in disgrace.

Nancy Dreicer, for example, resigned from her $132,891 per year position as regional administrator for the Department of Children and Families after a judge ruled she committed fraud. But because the fraud was unrelated to work, she still got a lump sum of $30,667,

Middle managers tend to leave with $10,000 to $25,000 while low-level workers often walk away with up to $15,000, depending on their length of service, according to information kept by the state.

Similar payouts for unused sick and vacation time also occur in the state's college and university system.

Former St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler claimed in 2009 that the college owed him $588,972 for unused sick leave and another $65,071 in unused vacation. The college ultimately settled with Kuttler, paying him $339,501.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353..

Unused sick days make a nice parting gift for state workers 07/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 12, 2012 10:30pm]
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