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Sick leave buyback costs city millions

September 06, 2000

Sick leave buyback costs city millions



By DAN KULIN / Staff Writer


Hagerstown taxpayers have paid city employees more than $2.2 million for not calling in sick over the past 10 years.

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Through the city's sick leave buyback policy, employees can choose to sell some of their unused sick days back to the city each year. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, which ended June 30, the city paid 232 employees $284,990 for unused sick days, according to the city Finance Department.

Most City Council members said the sick leave buyback policy should be eliminated or cut back to save money. Because the policy is included in contracts with each of the city's four employee unions, however, council members and union representatives said it would be difficult to change the policy.

When the city instituted the sick leave buyback policy in the mid-1970s it was intended to curb sick leave abuse, said Councilman William M. Breichner, who was head of the city Water Department and a member of the city's union contract negotiating team when the policy was established.

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"Back in the patronage days employees saw it as having two weeks vacation and two weeks sick leave. They had a month and they took it," Breichner said.

"It was costing big bucks because when you had someone sick you had to put someone else on it," he said, adding that most times those filling in were on overtime. "We instituted the pay out as an incentive to stop the abuse."

Breichner said he thinks the policy did reduce the number of sick days taken and still prevents potential sick leave abuse. But he said the number of days employees are able to sell back to the city should be reduced.

An employee can sell back one week to two weeks of sick time a year depending on how many sick days the employee has saved from previous years.

Breichner suggested limiting the employee sell back to one week. He said he thinks the employees may be starting to see the financial impact of the policy and hopes the policy can be changed within the next five years.

"The difficulty with this issue is we're dealing with four unions and we have to get them all to agree to it," Breichner said.

Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein said the policy also should be modified to lower the cost.

Councilman Alfred W. Boyer said he opposes the policy.

"It just goes against everything I've learned in the private sector," said Boyer. "We were paid to work."

Boyer said because the policy is part of the union contracts it would be "extremely difficult to get rid of it."

Councilman J. Wallace McClure called it an "extremely benevolent benefit."

"I never had those kinds of benefits," he said.

McClure and Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said that realistically the sick leave buyback policy is here to stay because it is part of the union contracts.

Andrew Hartman, a city firefighter and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1605, said, "I think the unions would fight hard before giving that up. ... That's what unions do. Fight to keep benefits and for better benefits."

Hartman said the sick leave buyback policy probably still reduces the amount of sick leave taken.

"If you get up with a headache of stomach ache, you may push yourself more to come in," Hartman said.

Washington County employees have a similar benefit, called a sick leave bonus. Under that policy, county employees are paid up to $75 a day for no more than three days a year as long as the employee has taken fewer than three sick days that year. In the 1999-2000 fiscal year, county employees were paid about $77,900 in sick leave bonuses, according to county Human Relations Department figures.

The City of Frederick, Md., has a similar incentive policy, under which employees are paid for up to three days of unused sick time annually, said Jeanne Rockenbaugh, city compensation and benefits manager.

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