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Tampa benefits not so far from private sector's

TAMPA — Think government workers get gold-plated benefits packages? Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik does.

His campaign platform calls for stopping unlimited accumulations of vacation and sick days and taking a long look at the city's pay scales. In December, he told the weekly publication Creative Loafing that, "No one in the private sector gets unlimited accruals of vacation and sick leave. That's got to be changed."

We wanted to know, can Tampa's city workers collect unlimited vacation and sick time? And are such practices extinct at private companies?

We first turned to Tampa's personnel manual for guidance. Full-time workers get about 12 vacation days per year, plus extra days depending on how long the person has worked for the city. A 20-year employee earns seven extra days, for example. Workers also receive 12 days of sick leave, but don't get extra days based on seniority.

Employees can save their vacation time and carry up to six weeks to the next year. Additional vacation time gets converted to sick days, which have more restrictions than vacation time. Workers can carry forward as much sick leave as they want.

(Tampa has four contracts that cover union workers, police officers, firefighters and all other employees. Each contract is different, but the vacation and sick leave policies are largely consistent.)

Asked last week about his description of Tampa's benefits package, Turanchik noted that retiring workers are paid for their unused vacation time (up to the six-week cap) and for half of their unused sick days. Even though vacation time is capped, he said, extra days are converted to sick leave and can eventually be cashed out at the lower rate. "It grows and grows and grows," he said.

So Turanchik is mostly correct about Tampa's policy. Combining vacation and sick leave, an employee can accumulate unlimited paid time off. But vacation days are capped and additional time is counted as sick leave, which is harder to use and less lucrative upon retirement.

Tampa is mostly in line with other large area cities, though it's the only major city with unlimited sick leave. Both St. Petersburg and Clearwater cap vacation and sick days. Retiring St. Petersburg city workers can cash out almost five months of unused time off, while their Clearwater counterparts get a little more than five months. (That figure was cut by about a third for newer Clearwater hires.)

It turns out that policies similar to Tampa's are somewhat common in the private sector, according to several studies of employee benefits packages.

The New Jersey-based employment law think tank Alexander Hamilton Institute surveyed 1,193 companies about their benefits. Roughly three-fifths of the businesses have traditional vacation plans such as Tampa's. The rest give workers a lump sum of time off to use for vacation, sick days or personal time.

The survey found a large group of traditional companies — about 36 percent — offer unlimited sick time. Another 28 percent let workers collect more than six weeks.

Tampa's 30-day cap on vacation time also is common, though less so. About one-fifth of traditional employers set caps between 21 and 30 days. Roughly the same number allow workers to carry only five days to the next year. Almost 11 percent allow unlimited vacation accumulation.

Another report has similar results. A 2009 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 14 percent of traditional companies offer unlimited sick time. On average, companies allowed workers to roll over 20 vacation days to the next year, or 10 days fewer than the city of Tampa.

We sent Turanchik copies of the studies and asked him if he had any evidence to support his statement that "no one" in private business gets unlimited vacation and sick leave. He said he made the claim based on his own experience as a labor lawyer and from talking with business owners.

"I haven't talked to a single business in the Tampa Bay area that allows for unlimited accruals," he said.

Turanchik also pointed to another finding from the Alexander Hamilton Institute: 87 percent of employers, a "resounding majority," don't cash out unused sick time when a worker retires.

"It's just not a package you see," he said. "I'm sure there's a few companies that do it. But as a general proposition, it's just not an acceptable practice."

Turanchik's description of Tampa's benefits package is largely correct. He's also right that's it's rare for a private business to offer unlimited accumulation of sick leave with a large payout upon retirement. Unlimited vacation also is rare.

But his original statement was "no one" in the private sector gets unlimited vacation and sick leave. Several studies say that's not true — though very few of those companies will pay for unused sick time upon retirement as the city does.

The essence of his point is correct, and we rate Turanchik's statement Half True.

Lee Logan can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or llogan@sptimes.com.

Tampa benefits not so far from private sector's 01/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 29, 2011 9:39pm]
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