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Column: Curb Sick Pay for Public Workers

Teachers, cops, others can bring home big bucks by banking unused time.

Last week at the New Jersey League of Municipalities convention, Gov. Chris Christie called for an end to accumulated sick leave payouts for public workers.

If only!

Parsippany again became a poster child for a Christie reform, as he has cited the huge payouts police officers received in recent years.

Two years ago, one lieutenant received $317,000 on retirement for unused sick, vacation and personal days. One patrolman got $292,000. In total, at the end of 2009, four officers got $900,000 in compensation for days they didn’t use while employed.

Morristown’s current police contract limits unused leave payouts to 40 percent of a portion of the total hours accumulated. Still, after 35 years, an officer earning $90,000 could receive about $77,000 on retirement.

While police payouts tend to be the most generous, they are also rampant in teacher contracts.

For instance, the 2008-2011 Parsippany teachers’ contract provides for some retiring teachers (those hired prior to 1993) who have at least 200 unused sick days to receive a third of all accumulated days. These days are paid at the final salary, regardless of the salary at which they were earned. A 35-year teacher with a master’s degree earning $88,000 a year could walk away with a payout of almost $45,000 even if he used two sick days a year. A teacher hired after 1993 gets 20 percent of accumulated days. Note: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention the difference between payouts for teachers hired before and after 1993.

Because there are so many more teachers, these payouts really add up.

Last week, Christie’s office said New Jersey localities paid $43 million last year for unused sick and vacation leave payouts.

Such payments are rare in the private sector.

Superintendents and top school administrators used to negotiate the amount of their leave payouts but the state capped that at $15,000 beginning in 2008. A similar cap was imposed on recent hires.

Now it’s time to get rid of, or severely limit, these payouts for all workers.

The question is how.

Both parties have introduced bills taking different approaches to the issue—for instance, either setting a maximum of $15,000 for all workers or eliminating them entirely for those earning $100,000.

Democrats complain they tried to limit sick payouts last year, but Christie conditionally vetoed the legislation. In his veto message, Christie said the bill did not go far enough and sought to toughen it.

Last week in Atlantic City, Christie said capping sick payouts at $7,500 would make a huge difference and provide significant savings to taxpayers. But he would like to eliminate them all prospectively.

The courts have ruled the superintendents’ payout cap could not be applied to amounts already accrued, so the state likely cannot erase whatever workers already have accumulated based on existing contracts. That’s why it’s important for the Legislature and governor to act fast, to limit future amounts as soon as possible.

Any bill should also require that school districts make employee contracts even easier to get by posting them online on their websites.

Districts have to include certain information about administrators’ extra pay as part of their annual budgets, but there is no requirement to disclose teacher contract information in a similarly open way.

Yes, the contracts are public and people can see or get a copy of any contract by visiting requesting it from the district office. But so many other documents are online, it wouldn’t take much more than a few minutes of scanning them in and posting them to make them even more accessible.

A survey of Morris County school districts’ websites found only a handful—Parsippany, Pequannock, Randolph and Roxbury—have posted all their public employee contracts. Several others, including Harding, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Long Hill and the Rockaways, have made only administrators’ contracts, not those of teachers, available online. The majority of districts have no contracts online.

The state’s new anti-bullying law has every district posting its policy in this effort prominently on the Internet. A law limiting retirement payouts could require that all contracts be posted, as well.

Or, until the state is able to limit sick and vacation payouts, making contracts more readily available to the public might help generate a groundswell to pressure the board of education to limit retirement payouts on their own.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

amturn November 25, 2011 at 01:17 PM
If Christie wants to clean house why not start on top were the real money is. Thanks to the paper bring to light the PVSC scandal with all the relatives and friends cashing in on tax payers money. I'm sure that was common knowledge among the politicians. They don't like to step on each others toes. Christie talks about putting a cap on superintendent pay. Great! But it should also apply to Charter schools. Why let someone get paid more and at the same time only has a couple of hundred kids under them? That is also tax money going out the window. Is that going to be the next scam that we are going to have to deal with. Who is starting these Charter Schools? I think I read somewhere that the VP brother is lobbing for them in FL? I was reading a charter school application filed by "Florida House speaker designate Will Weatherford and Anne Corcoran, the wife of future speaker-select Rep." was rejected. They both voted for Senate bill 736. I just know when money comes into play everyone will line up to cash in. They promise you everything you want to hear. In the end we are the losers. People in power will use their connections and be first in line. Right now the people have the power. You can vote and also get on the school board if you don't like the way they are running it. The problem is most people don't even brother to vote for school elections. Once you give up your schools it's gone for good.
Richard Dean November 26, 2011 at 10:37 PM
When I began my muncipal career in Butler back in 1975, there was a clause in the labor agreement between the borough and the association (local union) setting up dollar amounts of compensation for percentages of unused sick time which were capped at $8,000 and $10,000 but not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands. This was part of the bargaining process over the years that we accepted on condition of not receiving higher percentage raises. Many like myself retired getting only a small portion of the accumulated sick time in this manner not having to use 100, 200 and 300 sick days accumulated over the years.
Josh Dubnick November 27, 2011 at 09:44 PM
Randy's link to a USA Today article compares public sector and private sector compensation but there is no adjustment for the fact that there are a great many private sector employees working part-time or working in minimum wage jobs. In recent years, many of the lower skilled public sector jobs have been privatized. Jobs such as building and grounds maintenance are now performed by lower paid private sector workers rather than by lower paid public sector employees. In Hopatcong, several DPW workers lost their jobs when garbage collection was privatized. Some were hired by Roselle and even if the pay was the same, the DPW workers laid off were most likely the lower paid (those with the least seniority) and therefore the "average" public sector salary increased. When comparing public and private sector compensation, one must look at the whole picture and look at comparable jobs and employees with comparable education and experience. The differences are much less when you do that.
La Quin January 03, 2012 at 03:48 PM
ok, let's be real.. most private sector jobs don't give disability anymore - so goodbye to that (we have to PAY for it) next - most private sector jobs are 80 hours a week WITH work done on vacation - so a second job is even an option next - most people in the private sector have HORRID pension plans - easiest way to cut someone's pay is to 'change' their pension plan / and increase out of pocket benefits cost. .. the economy sucks... NJ is falling apart ... EVERYONE needs to take a hit. -- and if ANYONE even mentions the whole 'teachers pay for stuff out of pocket' i'll scream.. i used to teach preschool and now i homeschool NEITHER qualifies me for a tax credit yet teachers get it.. trust me my homeschool out of pocket is WAY MORE then any teacher is laying out!
La Quin January 03, 2012 at 03:48 PM
oh, and as for private sector... WHAT SICK DAYS?

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