HR News & Trends

Weekly Wrap: Cash Out Sick Days? Dream On, Unless You’re a Public Worker

Grant in glass

As the national debate rages over the pay, perks, and pensions for public workers – just take a look at what’s going on in Wisconsin if you don’t know what I mean – here’s another spectacular benefit that those paid with our tax dollars get that your typical private sector employee can only dream of.

Maybe you’ve heard of it: the ability to cash out sick leave.

I was reminded of this benefit while reading a column this week by Scott Herhold of the San Jose Mercury News. He had a particularly strong opinion about it:

When San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis retired in October after 30 years on the force, six of them as its oft-besieged leader, he got a much sweeter goodbye than a gold watch: The city gave him nearly $300,000 for the sick days he hadn’t used.

Davis, who received a total cash compensation of more than a half-million dollars last year, wasn’t the only one benefiting from the city’s generous deal. Retired Fire Chief Darryl Von Raesfeld got a sick leave payout of nearly $269,000.

The city’s employee relations chief, Alex Gurza, told the City Council on Tuesday that the city paid more than $14 million in 2009-10 to cash out unused sick leave. Five years ago, the figure was about $6 million.

I’ve written the above three paragraphs in fairly straight fashion — I was a reporter for more than 25 years — because the numbers themselves shock the senses, particularly in a city threatening to cut library hours and lay off cops.

San Jose mails checks to new retirees in a way that defies common sense. On the brink of insolvency, the city is holding to a promise it cannot afford anymore. Put another way, it’s like a busted gambler who insists on buying his kid a Lexus with a line of credit.”

Now, I’ve worked in the private sector all my life (save for a one-class-a-semester gig teaching journalism at a local state college) and never, ever, anywhere have I seen or heard of anyone besides public employees being able to accumulate such large amounts of sick leave, much less be able to cash it out. Problem is, LOTS of public sector workers get this benefit, and here’s another example from San Diego.

It’s another reminder of why our government at virtually all levels is so royally screwed up.

And columnist Herhold adds this:

In the private sector, companies increasingly have adopted a mix of vacation and sick leave called “personal time off.” But companies typically put strict limits on how much of that time can be carried over. (For the record, the Mercury News does not pay out unused sick leave. If I enjoyed the cops’ deal, I’d consider taking off for Tahiti.)”

I’m with Scott Herhold; if I got this kind of perk, I’d head to Tahiti or Hawaii, too.

Is there anyone, anywhere in the private sector who gets to accumulate and cash out sick leave like this? If there is, I’m dying for someone to tell me about it because as far as I’m concerned, this is yet another indicator of how public employees get benefits thrown at them that are grossly unnecessary, and in this economy, terribly unsustainable.

Of course, there’s a lot more in the news this week than unsustainable pay, perks, and benefits for public employees, and here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Paying when you deny a lunch break. Here’s another one of those ground-breaking workplace rulings to come out of California: Employers “who fail to give workers 30-minute meal breaks and 10-minute rest periods must pay them two hours’ wages as compensation, a state appeals court has ruled in a hotly contested workplace issue,” according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Wednesday’s decision by the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles involved suits by 32 United Parcel Service supervisorial employees who said they had been denied lunch breaks, rest periods and overtime for as long as a decade… (and) The ruling will bind all trial judges in California unless UPS successfully appeals it to the state Supreme Court.”
  • The growing trend to discriminate against the unemployed. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had a hearing this week on a controversial and growing issue – companies that refuse to consider hiring the unemployed. “The practice has surfaced in electronic and print postings,” said a Associated Press story in the Seattle Times, “with language such as ‘unemployed applicants will not be considered’ or ‘must be currently employed.’ … Evidence about how widespread the practice may be is sketchy. But reports of it have caught the attention of regulators, lawmakers and advocates for the unemployed.” SHRM weighed in with testimony, saying, ““SHRM is unaware of a widespread practice or trend to exclude unemployed individuals from consideration for available jobs. Employers, in SHRM’s experience, whether operating in the currently challenging economy or in more robust times, are focused on finding the right people for the job, regardless of whether or not they are currently employed.”
  • How do you miss a person dead in their cubicle? Some things in the modern workplace just can’t be explained – like someone dying at their desk and not being noticed for more than 24 hours. According to television station KTLA in Los Angeles, “An L.A. County employee apparently died while working in her cubicle (last) Friday, but no one noticed for quite some time. 51-year-old Rebecca Wells was found by a security guard on Saturday afternoon. She was slumped over on her desk in the L.A. County Department of Internal Services.”
  • Why Westminster is wonderful. This has absolutely nothing to do with the workforce, management, or HR, but there is nothing quite like the annual Westminster Dog Show in New York, and coverage of this week’s event shows how great it is. But if it something you just will never get the chance to go to, there is another alternative: check out the hilarious movie “Best of Show.” It’s a thinly-veiled, comedic look at Westminster, but take it from me, the movie really captures the spirit of what makes this giant dog show such an amusing event. Here’s a clip from the film, in case you don’t know what I mean.

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at john@tlnt.com, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/johnhollon.
  • http://twitter.com/paxxman Paul Martin

    Strange as an HR expert you are blind to executive pay packages that have even more generous perks than those described in your post. And I know you are aware the ETO/PTO is considered a obligation that must be paid on termination at least in California. Even some old school businesses that have traditional sick leave accruals sometimes offer payouts to employees who’s attendance has has been remarkable (no or only brief absences due to sickness).
    The fact that it is normative in the public sector is not a dysfunction as you claim, merely different. Recent US Supreme Court rulings have delineated and proscribed how various Federal laws (protections) that are mandated for most private sector workers do not apply to state workers. Overtime, for example, is rarely paid to municipal and state employees with the exception of Police and Fire and that is not universal.

  • Anonymous

    Paul: You are missing the boat here. California is an aberration in paying out accrued vacation and PTO for private sector workers who earned in the previous year, and as someone who has worked in the Golden State for a long time, most companies limit the accrual of new vacation/PTO until you have used what was earned in the previous year. My statement stands: Private sector workers just aren’t allowed to cash out huge chunks of sick time or PTO accrued over many years of work except in the rarest of situations.

    This is a perk that many public sector workers get that private sector workers do not. And don’t even get me started on the OT issue, because MANY police, fire, and public safety workers use it to “spike” their earnings in their last year or two of work to dramatically increase their lifetime pension payouts. This “gaming” of the pension system is something else that most private sector workers don’t get to do, either.

    These kinds of benefits and perks are simply unsustainable in this kind of economic environment. Maybe you don’t feel it, but the wind is blowing public sentiment against these kind of excessive compensation packages that are a big reason why so many states and municipalities are in deep financial trouble right now.

  • Ipsa

    Wow, what am I doing majoring in PR? I need to major in ANYTIHING GOVERNMENT, meaning anything that will make them hire me a.s.a.p! How is this policy not under more scrutiny? Or maybe this policy needs to be adopted by other sector and share the wealth, especially with the millions of budget cuts everyone has been suffering from…And wow, reaaaallly, no one suspects their cubicle neighbor might be in some sort of a pickle when she overslept during lunch?