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Hagerstown may review sick leave 'buy back' benefit

March 07, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Hagerstown city employees were paid $263,449 for sick days they didn't take last year, a benefit some City Council members said they may review in light of looming budget shortfalls.

Some employees are allowed to "sell" up to 10 days of unused sick leave back to the city each year.

In 1998, 223 of 431 eligible employees took advantage of the benefit, averaging a payback of about $1,180 each, according to the city Finance Department.

Finance Director Al Martin said the buy back is expected to cost about the same next year, a significant amount of money now that the City Council is working to cut $1.1 million from projected spending in the next budget.

The policy, in effect since the mid-1970s, is intended to decrease abuse of sick leave by creating an incentive for employees not to call in sick, said Austin Abraham, acting manager of the Human Resources Department.

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Before the policy, some employees treated sick leave like vacation time, said Councilman William M. Breichner, who headed the Water Department when the policy was established.

The abuse was costly, he said, because the city had to pay overtime for other employees to fill in.

Breichner supports keeping the policy but other council members said it at least deserves a look.

"That's a considerable amount of money to make sure people show up on the job," said Councilman Alfred W. Boyer.

"Everything that impacts the city budget is being looked at ... and should be looked at," said Councilman Lewis C. Metzner.

Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein said because the benefit is part of negotiated contracts with four city unions, "I doubt we can change it."

However, she said, city officials should consider trying to negotiate to end the benefit for new employees without taking it away from current workers.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure said because the council is struggling to balance the budget, city employees should consider offering changes.

"We don't want to have to balance the budget with layoffs," he said. "This is truly an area where there could be some give and take."

Representatives of Hagerstown's four labor unions said they favor keeping the policy.

"It is a valuable asset to the employees," said Chris Brezler, a maintenance mechanic and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1540, which represents about 160 employees.

Andy Hartman, a firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1605, said, "It's an incentive to go the extra mile and not call in sick because you can get one to two weeks pay for not using it."

Contracts with the two unions are to expire June 30, with negotiations to begin in the next two months, Abraham said.

The other two contracts, with police and some Light Department employees, won't expire until 2000 and 2001.

-- Sick leave policy

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