EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 1, 2012

Editorial: Time to retire sick leave buyback

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — If anyone out there working in the private sector has sick leave buyback benefits, we’ve never heard about it.

Most people haven’t.

It’s a perk that’s granted almost exclusively to public employee unions around the country, meant to encourage them not to be dishonest by calling in sick when they’re not.

The thinking goes that no matter how many paid sick days an employer offers — five, 10, 15 a year — employees will take every one of them whether they’re sick or not, creating headaches for those who need to keep fire trucks manned and teachers in the classroom.

Thus, an incentive. Public employees can cash in unused sick days when they leave, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. That means taxpayers effectively pay them twice — once for the hours they worked, and a second time for not cheating.

It’s faulty thinking, of course. Those of us in the private sector know that most workers don’t have to be paid extra to be honest. They will take time off when they’re sick and will come to work when they’re well.

We think most public employees are no different; they’re honest and hardworking, and they don’t need special incentives to encourage them to stay that way.

Around the nation, state and local governments facing unsustainable retirement costs have come to the same conclusion. They are moving to rein in or eliminate payments for unused sick time.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is battling the state Legislature over what he calls “boat checks” -- the unused sick time bonuses awarded to many retiring public employees, which can easily run into six figures, enough to buy a luxury pleasure craft.

Closer to home, Salem, Mass., Mayor Kim Driscoll is targeting this bizarre perk in the current round of union negotiations.

Driscoll rightly points out that current union members are not to blame for this system; they’re simply accepting a benefit for which they have bargained in good faith. Many have probably factored those big sick-leave windfalls into their retirement planning, so the system can’t be dismantled abruptly.

But this is a system that creates havoc for budget planners, who can be socked with hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments that cannot be planned for in advance. It’s a system that’s unfair to taxpayers, who must pay millions of dollars for a benefit they will never see themselves.

Even the way the payments are handled is inequitable, since retiring workers get their buyback at their current rate of pay, even if it was earned at a lower rate.

It’s true that unions have been asked to make sacrifices in the past few years, particularly in the area of health care. But it’s also true that their benefits were more generous than those in the private sector, and they still have benefits, such as defined pension plans, that are disappearing for other workers.

In the long run, sick leave buyback is the kind of benefit that fuels taxpayer resentment, a holdover from a different era.

There are plenty of other ways to ensure that public employees are fairly compensated and can retire with dignity. This perk is one that deserves to fall by the wayside.