County Payout For Unused Sick Time Is Uncommon Benefit
The county's practice of cashing out unused sick time for managers and administrators is an uncommon benefit in this region, according to the Watchdog Unit at the San Diego Union-Tribune. We discuss how much the county has paid out for unused sick time in recent years, and what other local employers are doing.
Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune
Scott Lewis, chief executive officer of voiceofsandiego.org
JW August, managing editor for 10 News
This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
ST. JOHN: Allowing employees to cash out unused sick leave when they retire has cost the county $2.5 million over the last five years, that's according to research by the independent watch dog institute based at San Diego State University. The San Diego UT followed up with a survey of who gets these benefits and who doesn't around San Diego. So a lot of data mining going on there. Ricky, what kind of payouts are we talking about, and how prevalent is this?
YOUNG: Right, the Watch Dog Institute did a really good job of taking a county payroll database and analyzing it to see how much of these sic leave payouts had been giving to people upon their leaving with the county. And came to that $2.5 million figure over, I think, three or four years. What we wondered was how does that policy compare to policies at agencies and governments and even companies across the region? And because the county had sort of I think sent signals that they were singled out in that report, that their benefit is somewhat standard, it's part of a competitive employment package they use to get the best people they can get. So we looked around to see, well, what is the competitive market, and the way we determine to do that, 'cause this is a benefit for managers. So what we did was take a person who makes $100,000 a year, and think, okay, how much sick time could they accrue, and how much would they get paid out under the policies of the different agencies, and it turned out the county benefit is almost the very best in the county. The one that has more is the Padre Pam municipal water district, which would pay out even more than the county. But the county really is way up there. So when you say competitive, they've certainly got their competitors down on this sick leave payout policy.
ST. JOHN: And it's interesting to see how those cash sums have gone up in the last four years. What is that all about do you think?
YOUNG: Well, I'm not sure --
ST. JOHN: More people retiring perhaps? Or bigger payouts?
YOUNG: I actually didn't look at that, so I'm not sure why it's gone up.
ST. JOHN: It's gone up from 6000 to 15000.
YOUNG: Oh, yes, yes, the amounts have gone up probably just because people have accrued more over the years and were able to get it paid out. The issue with the county policy is, it has no maximum. So you can accrue hundreds of days of sick time, and then get it all paid out. The top was a guy from the DA's office who got paid out a hundred and $18,000 just in sick pay when he left county employment. So when we looked at it, our theoretical employee who made $100,000 didn't get paid out anywhere near that amount, we were trying to be fair. So our person got paid out, like, 57000. Then there was the water district where there was, like, 7000, and up there with the county was NCTV, the North County Transit agency. But what was also interesting is how many agencies simply don't pay out sick time at the end. The federal government doesn't, the state government doesn't, the UC system doesn't, USD doesn't. Sempra doesn't, by the way.
ST. JOHN: Yes.
YOUNG: Speaking of Sempra. They were nice enough to let us know what their policy was on this. So it is a pretty rare benefit to offer at all, and then among those that do, are the county's is pretty high.
ST. JOHN: So it did seem pretty erratic, and that was a very interesting list that you provided by the way, and you can see that county general employees don't get the benefit. But then again, county employees -- sorry, city employees in Vista, Solana Beach and San Marcos do get it. So I was just wondering how much do you think people are even aware of this benefit when they sign up? And is it really an incentive?
YOUNG: That's a very good question. You know, the county says they need this to retract and retain employees, but the 2 or 3 people that the Watch Dog Institute reached to ask about this benefit said that it was a surprise to them when they got the payment at the end. They said it was a pleasant surprise after their years of service to get this extra payment. So that's sort of, you know, I don't think they're using it too much to attract and retain employees because the ones we reached with $100,000 at stake didn't even know they were getting it.
ST. JOHN: Just a nice surprise when they retired. Scott?
LEWIS: Well, it's another yet another in a long line of revelations about compensation, and in a small -- not even the core compensation elements that a person gets salary, wages, pensions, healthcare, there's all kinds of these little things that when you add them up explains the disillusion among taxpayers in this county about what's happening. So the idea of being able to buy years of service, a guy works at the city and moves to the SDSU and is offered a chance to buy more years to add toward their retirement. You have county offers its supervisors a benefit to pay for their car usage. And that counts to their pension. And you know, you keep getting these -- reciprocity. So if somebody -- Ron Roberts worked at the City of San Diego, now he works at the county, now his City of San Diego pension that he'll eventually cash out will be based on his county salary. So it'll be all this -- these kinds of reciprocity issues, and these [CHECK AUDIO] that are supposed to attract and retain employees that will continue until they're cleaned up to disillusion taxpayers and make it so that it's so hard for us to balance the budget and get into a balanced situation.
ST. JOHN: JW?
AUGUST: I'm grinding my teeth. When I read the story, when I read the story and I saw the work of the watch doing dog institute, I was thinking, hello, sick pay is for staying home when you're sick. If you have to reward people to come to work, then you don't want those kind of people working with you. I'm in the private sector. I don't get rewarded for showing up to work or not taking my sick days. I feel a responsibility to do it. I think it's just horse feathers that they even talk about this, this is completely off the -- shouldn't even be on the books. It never was used to recruit them, and this song and dance about they needed this to recruit people, I am really tired of the local government officials saying that's why we have to do this, because having a job for life and having insurance cover annual is not enough.
ST. JOHN: Well, Ricky, there is an argument, I guess, beyond just keeping good employees to this policy, what's the argument?
YOUNG: I have no idea. That was the argument.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
YOUNG: They offer -- they said this is part of a, you know, salary and benefit package that is necessary for us to retain and recruit the best employees. Now -- and I should say, you know, 'cause we work very closely with the watch dog institute, and we saw the watch dog institute gave them a list of, like, 7 or 8 questions 'cause they wouldn't sit down for an interview, and that answer that I just said to you was given to 3 or 4 of the questions. So that was just sort of their talking point, and they just said it over and over. So they weren't really discussing this. So I can't really give you a justification beyond that.
ST. JOHN: So the idea was to discourage people from taking sick leave just to have some time off.
YOUNG: Well, I don't know if they said that, but that's certainly a good justification. Now at the same time, these are managers, okay?
YOUNG: That should be their most trusted employees. And if they got an issue with their managers taking -- abusing sick leave policy --
YOUNG: Then they are not one of the best run governments in America as they said in response to the Watch Dog Institute.
ST. JOHN: Scott?
LEWIS: Well, again, that's an important point. These are managers. These aren't the normal sort of, you know, kicking horse that we have around here, which is the unions on this sort of issue. These are managers, and these are benefits granted by an all Republican board. And it's, again, they have -- we always talk about the city's pension benefits of the county of San Diego has a very lucrative formula for pensions. And in fact is in many cases better and different than what the city offers. And so we have -- they have a very competitive package. And we need to deal with this issue. And we realized -- everybody needs to realize that it's not just the unions and it's not just Democrats issue it's Republicans in these positions of trust that are also giving out things that we're constantly finding that are upsetting and what not, and we need toy are view those before taxpayers will be willing to help balance these agencies' budgets.
ST. JOHN: I was just gonna ask you whether you thought perhaps the unions have been very much sort of fingered for this, and in some cases unfairly targeted because in some cases, s practice, they've just been trying to keep up with managers' benefits.
LEWIS: Well, they're negotiating against each other, so there's nobody looking out for the purse string when is they do these negotiations, there's basically, well, how can we divvy up this pie? And I think that, look, this is isn't a huge benefit, this isn't a huge -- as far as.
ST. JOHN: Yeah, in the bigger picture.
LEWIS: As far as the balancing of the system, but again, it's this long list of perks, like you said that they don't even know about to recruit and retain -- and 134 of them are so good that when they come, it actually gets them to leave because it's a sort of give away. And they don't recruit them, they don't retain them. And the county and other governments need to deal with this, whether they're Republican or Democrat or not.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to join the editors at the round table. And Jonathan is doing just that. Thanks for calling, Jonathan. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: I used to work for a school district, not in San Diego County, but in another county in California, and there's an even -- there's another aspect to this that even make its western you describe. Managers, a lot of managers, most managers are not hourly, so when managers used to work what would normally be called over time, you would get comp time for it, and this goes on with managers I'm sure in every public agency. And when you got sick, a lot of people take it as comp time. The idea that you work 15, 20 years, 10 years issue even eight years without ever having a sick day is ludicrous, but you get it as comp time, then you don't have to use your sick leave, and to a certain extent, this even applies to vacations where you maybe even two weeks off, you take one as [CHECK AUDIO] comp time, and as I say, as one your editors side, that's why so many people are disillusioned.
ST. JOHN: Jonathan, thank you for that insight into that practice. But you know, I just want to ask this, throw this out, because we're talking about public employees here. And in the private sector, you know, board members often seem to get benefits and bonuses however badly the county performs? Is it the public sector really any western the private sector in this? Or are we just sort of focusing on their benefits, Scott?
LEWIS: In the private sector, they have to answer to share holders and investors, and if it's a nonprofit, they have to answer to their donors and their board. And their structure's set up to answer for that. And here we have the voters. So this is the answer, this is them dealing with that question. Now, if everybody decides it's okay, then as the Republican party will do, they'll endorse the current crop of supervisors, and you know, as the -- if there's no outrage about this stuff, then maybe it is justified. The question is, do we realize that the level of all these perks, and why can't we just have a clean system of wages, of pension, and healthcare, and then just take care of that, and yet that's all these little things that keep adding up from reciprocity to a vehicle benefits, to all these things that just add up that they need to be taken care of.
ST. JOHN: Well, isn't one of the biggest problems that the people who make the decisions about these benefits are also benefiting from it themselves? I mean, you're saying cannot we simply, but how do we simply? How could we avoid this?
LEWIS: Keep talking about it. I don't know. You're right, that's exactly been the problem. I remember a union know official a couple of years ago telling me that -- and it's the City of San Diego that they kept expecting the managers to come down harder on them, and then realized over time that they were actually benefiting in the same way. And just had no incentive to do that. And so, yeah, we need to have a structure. Of 'cause otherwise we're gonna end up in a system where pensions are eliminated completely, where wages are forced down, and where nobody wins. And there's got to be an equity, an inner generational equity that we have to be thinking about.
ST. JOHN: Ricky.
YOUNG: Yeah, Alison, you asked whether things are worse in the public sector. I'm not trying to say -- we're not trying to make value judgments here because some people see good benefits as a good thing. I do want to give them credit for that. But I want to say we credited companies in there, like general dynamic, in facto, which says they don't have any sick leave payout. So I do think that things are reigned in a little more in the private sector, at least in the companies we could get to participate. I just -- I wanted to say one interesting thing about how the reaction to this has played out. There's sort of -- as Scott was kind of getting at, there's sort of a knee jerk reaction among unions to defend public employees, even if it's managers getting a benefit they don't get on the front lines. Which has been interesting to watch play out. And one other thing I wanted to mention was an interesting aspect of our survey that we haven't necessarily made much of, again, when you're looking at the all Republican board of supervisors that's giving this benefit is we included the city and the county of San Francisco, which does not have any sick leave payout, which is where there's some liberal people. Just to --
ST. JOHN: Okay. And you could put it the other way and say just perhaps the managers are hiding behind the unions who are fighting to maintain their benefits. But JW, did you have a point.
AUGUST: In defense of county government, they do have a lot of good employees, a lot of people do good work. I don't blame the guy. If they're gonna give him a check, they're gonna give him a check. But the culture needs to be addressed. And they need to pull up their britches and get to work on this. Of and the important thing is 206 the media continue to watch dog these people. We need to stay on them. A strong, vigorous media watching what government does is what we're all about.
ST. JOHN: Well, that was a lot of data mining we did to produce all that.