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Sick-pay policy accumulates into bonanza

Just because he didn't call in sick much, Cecil Henderson got a check for $41,263 from the city of Clearwater when he retired from his Public Works Department job last year.

When fire Chief Robert Davidson retires, he has a check coming of more than $65,000 _ again, just for not skipping work for sick days.

Deputy fire Chief David Kinsey is due about $45,000 for his good attendance.

Those checks are the result of a policy common to government but rare in the private sector: City workers can stockpile their unused sick leave, then get paid for half their unused hours when they retire.

Henderson, a 23-year city employee who retired last year as an assistant director of Public Works, was the top-paid city employee last year, according to city payroll records. He made $101,353, largely because of his check for unused sick leave.

Davidson and Kinsey are among the 82 current city employees who have saved more than 2,080 hours _ a year's worth of 40-hour work weeks _ in sick leave, according to a Times computer-assisted analysis of payroll records through Dec. 20, 1993. If they meet a few basic guidelines when they retire, those people will be paid for half that time at their top hourly wage. The city has about 1,630 employees.

The city owes those 82 people $1.83-million in sick pay, records show. Of course, the money won't all come out at once, but _ just for the sake of comparison _ that's more than six times the amount budgeted for this year to build a community center in Countryside.

And Clearwater will have to pay almost all of it, said Human Resources Director H. Michael Laursen. It's city policy.

"It's outrageous," said City Commissioner Fred Thomas. "Our method of compensation and retirement is extremely, extremely lush."

"It's entirely too generous," said Commissioner Art Deegan.

Interim City Manager Betty Deptula said she hasn't had a chance to address the issue because she has been on the job for about two months. Deptula has more than $23,000 in accumulated sick pay, records show.

If Clearwater had to pay for all the unused sick leave of everyone on its payroll, it would owe about $8.6-million, records show.

But the city won't have to pay all of that, Laursen said. Clearwater pays for accumulated sick leave only for people who satisfy two conditions, he said: They must retire directly from their city job _ they can't take a job somewhere else _ and they must retire on a pension or Social Security. That means they can't retire before they have at least 20 years of city service.

Clearwater also has put a cap on the amount of sick pay workers can accumulate. Unionized, 40-hour-a-week employees _ the bulk of the city staff _ can bank up to 2,400 hours if they were hired before 1990, Laursen said. Employees hired since then can bank 2,080 hours, he said.

Those caps were established and ratcheted down through the years in bargaining with the unions, Laursen said.

Management is a slightly different story. Newly hired department heads generally are capped at 1,950 hours, Laursen said. Those limits are not set in stone, however _ they are up to the discretion of the city manager when he or she hires department heads. Ron Rabun, city manager from 1988 to 1991, established the policy of capping sick pay for management, Laursen said.

But several longtime employees were hired when Clearwater had no such limit, and they continue to roll up the hours. For example, Charles E. Selby, a lieutenant who has served 36 years in the Fire Department, had banked 4,962 hours through Dec. 20. If Selby retired today at his current salary, the city would owe him more than $36,500 in accumulated sick pay.

The idea of letting employees bank their sick leave is relatively common in government, officials said. It is probably a fringe benefit that began as a way to compensate government workers who considered themselves underpaid years ago, Deptula said.

It also makes sense in fields like fire departments, where employees need to be strongly encouraged to show up to work to be sure there are enough people on duty, said Dave Daiker, secretary-treasurer of the Clearwater Fire Fighters Association.

Clearwater's policy is a bit more liberal than other local governments. (See related story.)

City employees receive 15 days per year in sick leave. If they don't use all the time, workers can roll those days over to the next year. That policy encourages people to come to work consistently, Laursen said. The promise of payment for unused time helps promote longevity, Laursen said.

Fire Department employeesrack up the sick leave quicker than other employees. Their caps are also higher _ 2,900 hours. That's all because firefighters work 56 hours per week, rather than 40, Laursen said.

Private businesses generally don't give as much sick leave and they don't let as much accumulate, said Art Dickerson, a principal at William M. Mercer Inc., a Tampa-based employee benefits consulting firm.

Clearwater's policy "is significantly more generous than what we see," said Dickerson, whose company works with big employers. But he cautioned that the city's sick-leave policy needs to be viewed in light of how it pays its employees overall _ including cash, incentives, benefits, deferred compensation and perks.

Full-time city employees averaged $29,062 in total wages last year through Dec. 20, according to the Times computer analysis.

Thomas contends that the city's policy needs to mirror more closely that of private industry. As the chief executive officer of Porpoise Pool and Patio Inc., Thomas says, he lets his employees accumulate 60 days in personal leave days, which include sick days. The employees get five such days per year.

But effecting any change in Clearwater's policy could be difficult. It would have to go through the normally arduous process of negotiations between unions and management.

Daiker, the firefighters' union official, says his group will argue to hold on to the sick-leave policy.

"We didn't want a cap in the first place," he said.

_ Staff writers Bob Port and Connie Humburg contributed to this report.

Big checks

Here are the Clearwater employees due the most money for unused sick leave. City policy allows employees to roll over unused leave year after year _ and get paid for half that time when they retire.

Name Department Amount due

Robert Davidson Fire $65,644

Richard Smith Public Works 47,894

David Kinsey Fire 44,985

Ream Wilson Parks and Recreation 47,758

H. Michael Laursen Human Resources 42,222

Charles Selby Fire 36,537

William Shepard Public Works 35,189

Malcolm Blankenship Water 34,462

Thomas Hackett Water 34,053

Wayne Meissner Police 32,569

Allen Hicks Public Works 32,032

Wayne Sibbert Police 30,409

Jeffrey Harper Administrative Services 30,373

John Stafford General Services 29,780

Howard Huff Water 28912

Source: Clearwater payroll records.

Other sick-leave policies

It may seem generous to let employees stack up their unused sick leave for years and then pay them for it when they leave, but that's generally the rule in area governments.

Clearwater's policy appears more generous than others, but only by degrees.

Pinellas County allows its employees to accumulate sick leave as long as they work for the county, said Jack Houk, the county's personnel director.

But the county allows six days of sick leave per year, compared with Clearwater's 15. And employees can't collect payments for their unused sick leave unless they stay with the county more than 10 years.

St. Petersburg's system is slightly different, allowing employees to use 40 hours for either sick leave or vacation _ and none of that can be rolled over from one year to the next, said Employee Relations Director Andy Houston. Beyond that, employees get 13 days per year of leave for extended illness and can accumulate that leave indefinitely, Houston said.

However, St. Petersburg pays for only one-fourth of the time accumulated, to a maximum of 300 hours, Houston said. That's less than one-sixth of Clearwater's cap.

Largo doesn't pay its employees for any accumulated sick leave, said Personnel Manager Pat Catalano. The only exception is in case of death _ the city pays a beneficiary for one-third of the unused sick leave. Beneficiaries of police officers killed on the job are paid for all unused leave, Catalano said, and firefighters' beneficiaries are paid for half.

The city allows 12 sick days per year, and most employees can store up to 1,440 hours, Catalano said. Employees also are allowed to convert some of their stored sick leave to paid vacation time, up to 80 hours per year.

_ NED SEATON

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