Costly, Excessive Benefit
Under the current leave policy, every employee receives 11 paid holidays. In addition, employees accrue annual days, sick days and bonus days based on years of service. For example an employee after one year of service earns 11 holidays, 12 sick days, 10 annual days and up to 4 bonus days for a total of 37 days of paid leave. After 20 years of service, that same employee can earn up to 68 days in a year, including holidays. For employees who don't use all of their time and make less than $60,000, that time can be cashed out at retirement for a sizable parting bonus. The cost of all paid leave to county government averages $37 million, which means the average employee is away from work 38.5 days per year including holidays. Another $26 million of unused leave sits on the county's books as a liability. To look at it another way, an employee who serves for 15 years and uses none of his time could be paid for a year without coming to work.
A Modest Proposal
My original proposal, which is a revision of a proposal from the Wharton Administration two years ago, would reduce the number of days an employee could earn in the future. In other words, any time "banked" by an employee would be preserved, so the employee does not lose that time. The maximum number of days an employee could accrue would be capped at 225 days, just shy of the 260 days that comprise the work year. Rather than having separate leave accounts (sick, annual, bonus), employees would have one account for paid leave that could be used for any purpose. There would no longer be any bonus days to be earned. The maximum days that could be cashed-out at separation would be 20. While limiting the number of days off, increasing productivity and reducing costs, this proposal would still be more generous than the vast majority of private sector companies.
However, opposition from fellow Commissioners resulted in a request to defer the item when it was originally considered until after the August 5th election. Also, in an effort to garner the 7 votes needed to pass the reform, I have offered two new amendments. The first amendment would gradually phase-in the reduction in leave over a three year period, rather than all at once. The second amendment would create an emergency leave bank filled by excess leave time donated by employees in the event a fellow employee has an extenuating circumstance and lacks the necessary paid time off. Despite these new amendments that water-down the proposal, county employees and prominent elected officials, both Democrat and Republican, oppose the change.
But we're entitled to it
Proponents of the current leave policy have as a primary argument that compared to the private sector they are woefully compensated, and therefore must have better benefits to bridge the gap. This may have been true in the past, but today it is a myth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics National Compensation Survey demonstrates that nationally and regionally public sector wages in most vocations are on par with the private sector. When benefits are included, nationally the public sector outpaces the private sector by more than $11 per hour on average. Regarding paid leave, public sector paid leave far exceeds what most private sector companies offer.
Another argument against reform is that abusers are the problem and we should crack down on them. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that the Civil Service system makes timely and effective discipline difficult for any manager. The second is that abused or not, the total cost of the benefit is too high. Most employees may be using their time appropriately, but it doesn't change the fact that there is an expense to the government that in my mind is unreasonable.
Opponents of change also argue that any change should only be applied to new hires. Because the county is working to reduce the number of positions and a hiring freeze is imposed, less than 250 employees on average have been hired over the last five years. With more than 6,100 employees in county government, it would take years to have an impact on what is not only a change in efficiency and productivity, but in the culture of county government.
Finally, they insist that the leave was promised when they were hired and that the employee handbook is like a contract and shouldn't be breached. Of course, this is a ridiculous argument. With this logic nothing positive or negative for the employee should ever be changed in the handbook. Many of my colleagues who make this argument voted for a budget that increases the health insurance premium, voted to curtail OPEB benefits and have supported changing our unsustainable pension system. The point is benefit changes are necessary as times change to sustain the viability of the corporation. In comparison, the stories of private sector companies, like FedEx who required employees take a 5% pay cut and suspended company contributions to 401Ks are endless.
Hypocrisy without boundaries
The hardest pills to swallow for me in this debate are the "conservative" elected officials who squawk about, lower taxes and reducing spending, but who have come out aggressively against reforming this policy. Many of the loudest objectors, were elected or re-elected last night, while others have been some of my biggest critics, because they say, "he's not a real Republican/conservative." Either they are not who they say they are philosophically or the reality that 70% of the cost of county government is personnel related is not understood.
This past Wednesday, we revisited the issue in committee where it failed to get a favorable recommendation by a vote of 3-3-1. As in the past, county employees on county time showed up to protest. One employee directed her comments to me. She said being a Commissioner and making these kinds of decisions must be easy. She said I didn't understand what it was like to work on the front lines and to work hard. Then she said that because she shows up for work and is a good employee, she deserves to be compensated and therefore had earned this excessive paid time off benefit. My response to her is that she is compensated. It's called a paycheck that the millions currently unemployed would love to have. For that paycheck, she is expected to show up and work hard when the lights are on and the doors are open and to do the best job that she can do (that's not to mention the other very generous county benefits employees enjoy).
The truth is that the proposal, amended or not, won't pass unless those that claim they are tired of spending speak up. Contact from county employees trying to maintain the status quo far out-number the contacts from the average taxpayer. What this proposal needs is a little disdain, demand and outrage from the people paying the bill.
(901) 545-4301County Commission passes proposal to reduce number of employee days off."