Monday, September 01, 2014

New county policy on sick, vacation time disputed

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 9/9/2013

Multiple discussions of the county’s approach to vacation and sick leave ended last week with the passage of a new policy, though some questions were left unanswered.

Under the new policy — approved Wednesday by the Franklin County Board of Commissioners — maximum sick leave accrual would be reduced from 720 to 480 hours, according to information provided to commissioners. Vacation hours would stay the same at 240 hours, and the amount of payout an employee might be eligible for upon departure or retirement would be based on years of service.

Multiple discussions of the county’s approach to vacation and sick leave ended last week with the passage of a new policy, though some questions were left unanswered.

Under the new policy — approved Wednesday by the Franklin County Board of Commissioners — maximum sick leave accrual would be reduced from 720 to 480 hours, according to information provided to commissioners. Vacation hours would stay the same at 240 hours, and the amount of payout an employee might be eligible for upon departure or retirement would be based on years of service.

What the policy doesn’t address — and with which commissioners Don Stottlemire and Rick Howard said they took issue — was that county employees with more than 480 hours of accrued sick leave would lose some of those hours when the new policy goes into effect.

“I’d like to make a motion to accept this policy [as stated] except for I’d like to see a change for long-time employees that have gotten over 480 [sick leave hours] to be able to retain that,” Stottlemire said Wednesday morning. “For those people that’s already earned it, I don’t want to take it away from them.”

Even paying out a percentage of the accrued hours above 480 might help those employees, Stottlemire said, but that wasn’t an option.

“That’s not administratively possible,” Lisa Johnson, county administrator and counselor, told commissioners Wednesday. “You didn’t budget any money to compensate for that. The money in employee benefits is not eligible to be used for these expenditures.”

During previous discussions about a new policy, Howard said he thought vacation time should be left at 240 hours and county employees not be penalized for unused accrued vacation time.

“I think it’s a benefit to the employees that [the county] has had for a long time,” Howard said. “I don’t like taking things away once [employees] have them if we can keep them coming.”

Commissioners Roy Dunn, Howard and Stottlemire voted “yes” for the new policy as it was presented, with the modification of moving the implementation dates to June 21, 2014, for hourly employees and July 1, 2014, for salaried employees, instead of Dec. 21, 2013, for hourly employees and Jan. 1, 2014, for salaried employees. The change addressed their concern with employees losing sick leave hours above 480 by giving employees more time to use those excess hours, Howard said. Commissioner Steve Harris, chairman of the board who has been absent for health reasons since early July, did not vote.

With the exception of the new implementation dates, the new policy will “Reduce sick leave accrual to 480 hours maximum, compensate employees upon separation as follows — 10 percent after 15 years of service, 15 percent after 20 years of service, 20 percent after 25 years of service, run Family Medical Leave concurrent with sick leave; retain the vacation leave accrual at 240 hours maximum per the current policy. This assumes employees continue to accrue leave and do not use any leave through June 20, 2014,” according to the policy.

‘It’s too expensive’

Commissioner Colton Waymire was the lone “no” vote and said he couldn’t vote to approve a policy that didn’t fix the original problem.

“I think it’s too expensive and unsustainable without a tax increase,” Waymire said. “Because without starting to raise taxes to pay for [the new policy], this plan isn’t sustainable either — it didn’t fix the problem. It’s expensive to taxpayers and it wouldn’t be that much of an inconvenience to leave the accrual hours down. And it would save [the county] a lot of money.”

The need for a new policy wasn’t raised in an effort to take away earned hours from employees, Waymire said, it was to reduce the unfunded liability for vacation and sick leave.

“We’re not taking anything away, we’re trying to get [sick and vacation leave] down to something that’s sustainable,” he said. “Vacation time is earned. [Franklin County] doesn’t want to pay [employees] any less, we just don’t want to have such a large bank of hours. I want to keep the benefit there. If [employees] are sick, I want them to go home and I want them to get well. The vacation hours they’ve earned, I want them to spend time with their family.”

A touchy subject

Commissioners first discussed the amount of unfunded liability for vacation and sick leave at a July 29 study session. Gayla Stofko, Franklin County human resources director, and Johnson presented options for a new policy to reduce the vacation and sick leave in hopes of lowering the unfunded liability, Stofko said previously.

As of June 21, 2013, the unfunded liability for sick leave was $492,852.84 and $483,617.26 for vacation time, for a total of $976,471.10, according to the county.

The current policy causes problems when employees with a substantial amount of sick time and/or vacation time leave their jobs with the county, Stofko said.

“In smaller departments, you pay out when that employee leaves, and it may be $7,000 or $14,000 and you’ve taken that out of the small department’s budget,” Stofko said. “That puts them in hindrance with filling that position because they’ve got to almost eat away the cost of what they’ve had to pay out for the leave. [Smaller departments] could have a position unfilled for three months until that cost is recovered so you can hire someone and pay them now even at a lower rate depending on how significant the amount of the payout.”

The issue of sick and vacation time accrual always is a touchy subject, Stofko said, and she hopes county employees understand the amount of liability the old policy puts on the county.

“There’s value in having tenured employees and we value our employees and, unlike other organizations, we’re fortunate we have large numbers who have been with the county for years — that’s dedication,” she said. “So when you start discussing these policies, it’s going to be received by employees perhaps a little different. It can be touchy for some people when you start discussing [policy changes], but it is a large liability for the county.”

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