Last week at the New Jersey League of Municipalities convention, Gov. Chris Christie called for an end to accumulated sick leave payouts for public workers.
Parsippany again became a poster child for a Christie reform, as he has cited the huge payouts police officers received in recent years.
Two years ago, one lieutenant received $317,000 on retirement for unused sick, vacation and personal days. One patrolman got $292,000. In total, at the end of 2009, four officers got $900,000 in compensation for days they didn’t use while employed.
Morristown’s current police contract limits unused leave payouts to 40 percent of a portion of the total hours accumulated. Still, after 35 years, an officer earning $90,000 could receive about $77,000 on retirement.
While police payouts tend to be the most generous, they are also rampant in teacher contracts.
For instance, the 2008-2011 Parsippany teachers’ contract provides for some retiring teachers (those hired prior to 1993) who have at least 200 unused sick days to receive a third of all accumulated days. These days are paid at the final salary, regardless of the salary at which they were earned. A 35-year teacher with a master’s degree earning $88,000 a year could walk away with a payout of almost $45,000 even if he used two sick days a year. A teacher hired after 1993 gets 20 percent of accumulated days. Note: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention the difference between payouts for teachers hired before and after 1993.
Because there are so many more teachers, these payouts really add up.
Last week, Christie’s office said New Jersey localities paid $43 million last year for unused sick and vacation leave payouts.
Such payments are rare in the private sector.
Superintendents and top school administrators used to negotiate the amount of their leave payouts but the state capped that at $15,000 beginning in 2008. A similar cap was imposed on recent hires.
Now it’s time to get rid of, or severely limit, these payouts for all workers.
The question is how.
Both parties have introduced bills taking different approaches to the issue—for instance, either setting a maximum of $15,000 for all workers or eliminating them entirely for those earning $100,000.
Democrats complain they tried to limit sick payouts last year, but Christie conditionally vetoed the legislation. In his veto message, Christie said the bill did not go far enough and sought to toughen it.
Last week in Atlantic City, Christie said capping sick payouts at $7,500 would make a huge difference and provide significant savings to taxpayers. But he would like to eliminate them all prospectively.
The courts have ruled the superintendents’ payout cap could not be applied to amounts already accrued, so the state likely cannot erase whatever workers already have accumulated based on existing contracts. That’s why it’s important for the Legislature and governor to act fast, to limit future amounts as soon as possible.
Any bill should also require that school districts make employee contracts even easier to get by posting them online on their websites.
Districts have to include certain information about administrators’ extra pay as part of their annual budgets, but there is no requirement to disclose teacher contract information in a similarly open way.
Yes, the contracts are public and people can see or get a copy of any contract by visiting requesting it from the district office. But so many other documents are online, it wouldn’t take much more than a few minutes of scanning them in and posting them to make them even more accessible.
A survey of Morris County school districts’ websites found only a handful—Parsippany, Pequannock, Randolph and Roxbury—have posted all their public employee contracts. Several others, including Harding, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Long Hill and the Rockaways, have made only administrators’ contracts, not those of teachers, available online. The majority of districts have no contracts online.
The state’s new anti-bullying law has every district posting its policy in this effort prominently on the Internet. A law limiting retirement payouts could require that all contracts be posted, as well.
Or, until the state is able to limit sick and vacation payouts, making contracts more readily available to the public might help generate a groundswell to pressure the board of education to limit retirement payouts on their own.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.