Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn struck a blow for fiscal sanity last week by moving to limit payouts for sick leave to departing city executives. Selling back unused sick days has become a cash cow for government workers heading out the door. The executive orders Buckhorn signed will not end the practice altogether, but they chip away at an abuse that taxpayers cannot afford.
Public employees deserve fair and just compensation. That is true even in this tough economy. But employment benefits that allow government workers to stockpile sick days and then cash them out are a legalized scam. Sick days are intended to provide a safety net for workers who are dealing with a personal or family illness. For employees, they ease the tension of missing work. For employers, they protect the rest of the workplace and foster good employee relations. Yet those sound goals have become twisted into mechanisms for back-door retirement payouts.
The two executive orders that Buckhorn signed will curb these excesses in the coming years. One eliminates longevity pay for senior managers. City employees are currently eligible for awards of between $500 and $1,500 after five years of service. Buckhorn also reduced by half the amount of unused sick days that senior managers could cash out upon their retirement. Managers will be paid for one-fourth of their accumulated sick leave instead of the current one-half.
The orders are expected to have little immediate benefit to the city's bottom line. The rule changes affect only new city employees — and the city, for all practical purposes, is not hiring — and they affect only managers, supervisors and professionals who are not included in the vast numbers of the city's unionized workforce. But it's a step toward reducing the up to $3 million that Tampa spends on unused sick leave every year. Buckhorn should seek the same concession in the new union contracts. And school districts across the state, including Pinellas, which face six-figure payouts for sick and vacation leave to their departing superintendents, should adopt similar policies. Sick leave is for illnesses, and people who need it should not lose out to those who game the system.