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Unused Sick Leave and Vacation Payouts are Breaking State Budgets Everywhere : A Well Thought Out Scream by James Riordan

When Bridgewater State University (a Massachusetts community college) President Dana Mohler-Faria  retired in March of 2016, he received a payout for 1,250 unused sick days and vacation time earned over his 46-year career which came to $266,040 — in addition to an annual pension of more than $183,000 and a $100,000 consulting gig.  The huge outcry resulted in Mohler-Faria refunding to the state fifteen weeks of what was declared “improperly accrued vacation time” and agreed to terminate his lucrative consulting contract.

Mohler-Faria was one of 10 state and community-college officials who received six-figure vacation and sick-time payments between 2011 and 2015. Just this week, the Board of Higher Education eliminated the practice of rolling unused vacation time into a sick-leave bank and will gradually reduce the maximum vacation allowance to 50 days, still over 50 percent more than the limit for most state employees.

CPS employees unused vacation and sick daysThe University of Massachusetts, which is not governed by the Board of Higher Education, had previously limited accrued time off to 960 hours for non-union employees, but it remains unlimited for union workers — yet another reminder of why post-retirement benefits should never be subject to collective bargaining.

In Pennsylvania, a state police major who retired in October netted $142,315 for 242 sick days he never used. And in Florida, 45,000 eligible state workers are due to receive a total $154 million in sick leave payouts.

The accumulation of unused sick days and vacation time has become a huge problem for many state and local governments. In Massachusetts alone, as of last year taxpayers faced about $500 million in liability for unused sick and vacation time.  Liabilities for public workers’ sick leave haven’t drawn as much attention as hulking pension and health care costs faced by states, but they still add stress to strained state and local budgets. In several states, giant payouts are prompting outrage and calls for changes from taxpayers and lawmakers.

Colleen Garry, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, said she would like to see sick day payouts eliminated for public workers earning more than $100,000. “That is just greedy as far as I’m concerned,” Ms. Garry said.

Garry’s bill calls for limiting payouts to 15 percent of an employee’s annual salary. Regardless of what you might think of her proposal, Garry made a point that public officials everywhere should heed, saying that government should “pay public employees fairly during their working years and not push compensation into retirement packages.”

Public worker advocates, however, say that large payments are generally limited to police and fire officials and top management, with most retirees receiving far more modest sums. “It’s a small retirement benefit,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director of the Communications Workers of America, a union representing public workers in the state.

office worker leaving office with his personal itemsSuch compensation is a rarity in the private sector, where more than a third of workers aren’t even eligible for paid sick leave, according to Thom Reilly, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.

“It just seems we’ve created this incredible, huge divide in the private and public sectors,” Mr. Reilly said. “There needs to be some balance: less generous in the public sector and, for significant parts of the private sector, employees should have access to some type of sick leave.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has proposed legislation that would cap sick leave accumulation at 1,000 hours for the state’s 42,000 executive branch employees. The approximately 5,800 executive-branch workers who already have accrued more than that would be grandfathered, though their sick time would be capped at the hours accrued at the time of the legislation’s passage.  These changes would need to be negotiated through collective bargaining agreements with 11 unions.

It is difficult to quantify the scope and cost of sick leave payouts nationally because states, towns and counties have different policies for awarding these benefits. Mr. Reilly surveyed 140 of the country’s largest city and county governments in 2014 and found that 77% had no cap on the amount of unused sick leave employees were allowed to accrue and, in most cases, be remunerated for at retirement.

Governments often don’t budget for sick leave payouts, which can result in large, unexpected costs when longtime employees retire. In Jersey City, N.J., officials issued $25 million in special emergency notes between 2013 and 2015 to pay for retiring employees’ unused sick and vacation leave. Mayor Steven Fulop, who took office in 2013, has started contributing to reserves to cover the payouts, but the city’s estimated $116 million liability is only 14% funded.

Mr. Fulop, a Democrat, said the city is seeking to change its compensation policies through collective bargaining negotiations, but once such rules are in place, “it’s really hard to claw them back.”

In 2010, New Jersey capped sick day payouts for newly hired local and school employees at $15,000. Later that year, Republican Gov. Chris Christie refused a bill that would have extended the cap to all public workers, saying he wanted to completely eliminate the perk.

State lawmakers are currently considering bills to restrict or eliminate the practice. On Monday, Mr. Christie showed a willingness to compromise, and recommended capping sick day payouts for police and fire employees at their current accumulated balances or $7,500, whichever is greater.

Rubber stamp over paper sheet with the word sick leave imprinted on it.

Some states compensate unused sick days in ways other than cash payouts. Texas and Tennessee allow state workers to use sick leave to push up their retirement dates. Employees in West Virginia and Wisconsin can apply the unused days toward health insurance coverage.

In North Carolina, public workers are allowed to convert sick days to retirement credits, and career employees often retire with 18 months to two years of accumulated sick time.

Michigan, meanwhile, ended unused sick leave compensation for new state workers in 1980, but is still liable for nearly $36 million for 1,200 employees hired before the benefit was cut.

In Massachusetts, the issue flared up this March when the longtime president of Mount Wachusett Community College, Dan Asquino, cashed out his unused sick days plus $68,078 for 480 unused vacation hours for a total payment of $334,138, according to the college.

The college said the payouts were mandated by the state. Mr. Asquino said his payout was fair given his responsibilities and lengthy tenure as president. “The public should demand the best and the brightest and for that they must be willing to compensate accordingly,” he said in an email. “Otherwise, the public interest and safety is at peril.”

Kevin Preston, state director for the National Association of Government Employees union representing about 15,000 public workers in Massachusetts, said for lower earning employees, sick-day payouts help cover the bills after retirement.

The median payout per state employee in fiscal 2015 was $2,264, according to a state analysis.

“People are getting very modest amounts at the tail end of their very long career,” Mr. Preston said. “It’s not a windfall by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a hard-won benefit.”




The Author

James Riordan

James Riordan

Rare is it that any author will have one of his books described as the definitive work on a particular subject, but such a distinction has been bestowed by critics on no less than four books written by James Riordan. The New York Times Bestseller Break on Through, Riordan’s biography of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison, has not only been called “the most objective, thorough and professional Morrison biography” by the Times Book Review but also named as one of the Ten All Time Best Rock Biographies by Amazon.com. Riordan’s The Platinum Rainbow (written with Bob Monaco) was called “One of the best how-to books ever written” by the Los Angeles Daily News and “The ultimate career book on the music industry” by Recording, Engineer & Producer. Critics described Riordan’s The Bishop of Rwanda as “one of the most important books you’ll ever read.” and The Coming of the Walrus, Riordan’s novel about the 60s as “the definitive book on the era” and “a hilarious tale of a harrowing search for the greatest truth of all”. With the release of A Well Thought Out Scream and Madman in the Gate, Riordan pushed the boundaries again with poetry/song lyric books that contain hundreds of stunning, beautiful and poignant images from artists and photographers from all over the world. In the summer of 2013 a new edition of The Coming of the Walrus was released to rave reviews followed by The Kill Switch. The author of thirty-three books, James Riordan’s career began in the music industry where as a songwriter, manager, producer and concert promoter he worked with several well known artists. In 1976 he began writing a newspaper column, Rock-Pop, which he later syndicated. Riordan soon became one of America’s premier rock journalists with articles reaching millions of readers including those of Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Circus, Musician, and newspapers like The Chicago Daily News and The Kansas City Star. His reputation for relating on a one-to-one level soon led to interviews with George Harri-son, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa, The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Mandrell, Crosby, Stills & Nash and countless others. His first book, The Platinum Rainbow (written with Bob Monaco in 1980) became the largest selling book ever written about the music business. The guide to “succeeding in the music business without selling your soul” was praised by Variety ,The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Las Vegas Sun, The Minneapolis Tribune, Billboard, Record World and many more. The Platinum Rainbow became an industry-wide phenomenon and interviews with James Riordan were aired on over 1200 radio stations and numerous television talk shows. Next Riordan collaborated with Pulitzer Prize winner Jason Miller on a mini-series for network television (The Irish) and a movie of the week for CBS (Bless Me Father). In June 1991, William Morrow & Co. published Break On Through to outstanding sales and reviews. Riordan worked as a consultant on Oliver Stone’s film of Morrison’s life, The Doors, which led to his writing Stone’s biography. Published by Hyperion /Disney in December 1995, Entertainment Weekly called STONE “an unflinching biography... enough spectacle to fill a month of daytime-TV talk shows.” The New York Post said reading the book was like “the sensory overload of watching all of Oliver Stone’s movies back to back.” Riordan was interviewed by Inside Edition, People Magazine, The Tom Snyder Show, and many others. From 1997-2000, Riordan created and co-starred in a local television program, Kankakee Valley Prime Time, which won six Crystal Communicators, three Tellys, and earned Riordan a Chicago/ Midwest Emmy Nomination for Writing the program. In the summer of 1999, James Riordan wrote, directed and starred in Maddance, an hour long dramatic project which won Crystal Communicators for Drama, Writing, Acting and Directing. On April 9, 2000, James’ 16 year old son, Jeremiah, was killed as a passenger in an accident that involved three drunk drivers. Shortly after this, James founded Make it Stick which works to warn teens of the dangers of substance abuse and publishes a magazine distributed to high school students. In 2001, he founded Jeremiah’s – A Place to be Yourself to give teens a place to hang out away from the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Force to close by its incredible growth rate, Jeremiah’s was recognized as one of the fastest growing and most successful teen centers in the United States. In 2004, Toastmasters International named Riordan Communicator of the Year for Central Illinois, the YMCA gave him their Service to Youth Award and the United Way named him the Outstanding Volunteer of Kankakee County. Returning to writing, Riordan went to Africa to write The Bishop of Rwanda, (with an intro by Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren). In November of 2006, Harper Collins released a new edition of Break On Through followed by The Coming of the Walrus (Image Workshop) in December and The Bishop of Rwanda (Thomas Nelson, Inc.) to rave reviews (“Powerful …plumbs the depths of God’s forgiveness and finds no bottom – Publisher’s Weekly). In 2011, he won the Pledge For Life Harold Award for his work with area youth. In the summer of 2012, Lee and Shane Stanley (Gridiron Gang) optioned Maddance as a feature film followed by Apothecary Films optioning The Kill Switch in 2013 and Omni Films optioning Final Service to film in May. Riordan joined the staff of the Mancow Syndicated Television and Radio show in January of 2014 and is now seen and heard across America on a weekly basis. His biography is included in Who’s Who in Entertainment , Who’s Who in Poetry and Contemporary Authors of America. James Riordan – Works Books The Kill Switch, novel with Andrew Dahlmaine, Stonegate Ink, 2013 The Coming of the Walrus, Trade Paperback Editn, Image Workshop 2012 Springboard To Heaven ( Jojo Sayson Adventure), Image Workshop, 2012 The Elijah Collection, novel collection with Bill Myers, Zondervan, 2011 The Well Thought Out Scream (Poetry/Art), Image Workshop Press, 2009 Madman in the Gate (Poetry/Art), Image Workshop Press, 2009 The Deadly Loyalty Collection, Forbidden Doors, Zondervan, 2009 The Ancient Forces Collection, Forbidden Doors, Zondervan, 2009 The Enemy Strikes with Bill Myers (Elijah Project series. Zondervan, 2009 Deception with Bill Myers (Book 2 Elijah Project series. Zondervan, 2009 The Bishop of Rwanda (Finding Forgiveness) Thomas Nelson, March 2007 Paperback Edition May, 2012 The Coming of the Walrus (What Really Happened in the '60s) IW, 2006 Break on Through (The Life & Death of Jim Morrison), Morrow, 1991. (New York Times Bestseller, Published in 5 languages, Hardcover, 5 Paperback Editions, Harper Trade Paperback November, 2006) Stone (The Controversies, Excesses & Exploits of a Radical Filmmaker), Disney/Hyperion,1995. (Published in 3 languages, Hardcover, Paperback Edition). Making It in the New Music Business, Writers Digest Books, 1987, (Second Edition, Revised and Updated 1991, Two Hardcover Editions) The Platinum Rainbow (How to Succeed in the Music Business Without Selling Your Soul) 250,000 copies with Bob Monaco, Swordsman Press, 1980, Twenty-Three Editions, Revised 1988) 25 Year Anniversary Edition, 2005 Capture the Wind (Microphones) w.Tom Lubin, Literary Mouse Press,1989 Private Biography of Russ Kalvin, founder of Kalvin Corp., 1990 Private Biography of Steve Stefano, founder of Joico Hair Products, 1993. Mystery of the Invisible Knight (Book 2 in the BloodHounds Series) with Bill Myers, Bethany House,1997. Matters of the Heart (The Life & Times of Edgar Cullman), Culbro, 1997. The Curse (Book 7 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1997. The Undead (Book 8 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1996. The Scream (Book 9 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1998 The Ancients (Book 10 Forbidden Doors) with Bill Myers, Tyndale, 1999. The Cards (Book 11 Forbidden Doors Series) with Bill Myers, Tyndale,2000 Films Final Service, co-written with Gary Moore and based on his book, Omni Productions, to be filmed in May, 2014. Maddance, Writer/Director/Lead Actor, Search Engine Films, Simmcomm, 1999. (Winner of 4 Crystal Communicators including Best Drama, Screenplay, Director, Male Actor – Austin, TX.1999) Performance (The Life of Ingrid Bergman), Screenplay, Lancit Productions 1998. Returned to Author when film division closed)Rewritten2009 Shadowdancers, Story & Screenplay, Story with Bill Myers, 1997 Dr. Babylon, Story 1996. Air Guitar, Story & Screenplay, 1994 The Platinum Rainbow, Story & Screenplay, 1993 Television/Video Kankakee Valley Prime Time, Writer, Director, Producer, 1997-2000. (Nominated for Midwest/Chicago Emmy for Writing, 1998, 3 Telly Awards, 4 Crystal Communicators 1998-2000). Angels Among Us (The Amtrak City of New Orleans Train Disaster, Co- Producer, (Telly Award, 2000). River Valley Sports Authority, Producer, 1999-2003. I Hate The World (Hypnoises Music Video), Writer/Director/Producer, Crystal Communicator for Best Music Video Concept, 1998). The United Way (Video) Crystal Communicator for Best Video for a Charitable Organization, 1998.

If it isn't money and it isn't fame and it isn't sex... then what... God?

— James Riordan, 2000

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