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Contract allows prison workers to bank unlimited vacation

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UPDATE: Ron Yank, director of the state Department of Personnel Administration, has responded to our post (and the LA Times'), effectively arguing that vacation caps for corrections officers are practically impossible to enforce. See his full letter after the jump.

Last year we told you about the massive vacation balances state workers have accrued over the years, often in violation of rules designed to cap the amount of unused vacation any given employee could collect.

But according to a Legislative Analyst's Office report [PDF] elaborated upon in a Los Angeles Times article earlier this week, the state has apparently come up with a novel way to deal with the problem: Get rid of those limits altogether.

Buried deep within the labor contract recently approved by Gov. Jerry Brown for the state prison guards' union is a provision that essentially lifts the cap on the amount of vacation those workers are allowed to accrue throughout their careers.

Typically, state workers are allowed to bank 80 days worth of unused vacation, which can be cashed out when they leave state service. That vacation is cashed out at a worker's rate of pay when they retire, so leave banked earlier in a state worker's career effectively becomes more valuable over time.

Our investigation last year showed that over a three-year period from 2006 to 2009, retiring state workers cashed out nearly a half billon dollars in unused vacation. At least $100 million of that, and probably much more, was for vacation in excess of the state's 80-day cap.

The corrections liability is even higher. As the Times pointed out, the average corrections worker has accumulated about 19 weeks of unused leave, creating a cash liability of more than $600 million that is virtually guaranteed to grow.

A Brown spokeswoman told the Times that furloughs mandated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made it infeasible to enforce vacation caps among corrections officers, many of which are in positions that require around-the-clock staffing.

That point was echoed in a letter that Ron Yank, director of the state's Department of Personnel Administration, sent to California Watch today. The full text follows:

 

Your report on the recent contract with correctional officers cites an LA Times article on our decision to remove the cap on how much vacation time an employee may carry over year to year. The Times article erroneously claims that removing the cap could generate a cash windfall to officers when they retire.

This premise is faulty. The current cap is not enforceable. As California Watch and others have reported, over the past several years employees have accrued leave credits faster than they’ve been able to take time off, especially while forced furloughs were in effect.  Since the State cannot legally impose a “use it or lose it” policy on vacation credits, employee leave balances have unavoidably reached or exceeded the cap in many areas, especially in 24-hour institutions like state prisons. We removed the cap for the duration of the correctional officers’ contract because we’re unable to enforce it at this time. This change simply reflects reality. It doesn’t grant these employees any more time off than other state employees, nor does it mean they’re getting a windfall at retirement.

Some workers in critical positions, including corrections officers, were allowed to bank their furlough days as well, though they were instructed to burn through those before tapping into their vacation stores. As a result, the amount of banked vacation on the books grew substantially under the furlough program.

Hints of the impact of furloughs on banked leave were appearing as early as 2009, when a state Senate investigation found that corrections workers were banking five times more vacation than usual since furloughs began.

Reports released in late 2009 and early 2010 also suggested that employees of the state's Franchise Tax Board and unemployment offices were also banking vacation at much higher rates when furloughs began.

Even before furloughs hit full swing, more than 14,000 state workers had exceeded their banked vacation caps. That number jumped to 19,000 by the end of 2009.

The Times story pointed out several more interesting facts about corrections workers, many of whom have taken six-figure payouts upon their retirement from state service:

More than 3,500 corrections officer union members had more than 80 days of unused vacation and annual leave at the end of 2010, said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the state controller's office.

Even with the cap in place, it was not enforced, said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Last year, corrections led all state departments in end-of-career payments for unused vacation and sick time, totaling $111 million, according to state payroll data.

In all, 80 corrections union members got payouts exceeding $100,000 when they left state service in 2010. In most cases, those payments were well beyond the employee's annual salary.

The average payout for corrections employees taking lump sums was $24,994. But one $97,000-a-year parole agent received a $268,990 payment for unused time off, the controller's records show. A $119,000-a-year prison administrator took away $243,308. A $70,000-a-year parole agent got $176,493.

 

Comments

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joubaur's picture
Want to hear another good one about their misuse of our taxes? Guards often call in sick and get paid for it. The admin then calls another guard in. If he decides that he is too sick to come in, he also gets paid for it at the overtime rate, even though he doesn't come in. Guards have also been known to come in on overtime pay, during the same days they were off on sick time! This is one of the most criminal uses of Gov't benefits that can be imagined. These criminals are the ones who should NOT be allowed a union!!!
SionedOriginal's picture
Misleading statement. State employees (and a vast majority of private sector employees) get paid when they call in sick. It's called "sick time" and is earned on a monthly basis. When you call in sick hours are deducted from your sick time timebank. If you don't have the hours, you don't get paid. The sick guard's job is then offered to those who want to work over time that day. If no one volunteers, someone is drafted (FORCED) to work that position. If anyone uses any sick or vacation time in a one month period, they do not earn overtime pay until the overtime hours worked exceeds the time that they were off from work. "Guards have also been known to come in on overtime pay, during the same days they were off on sick time!" - violation of policy, union and contract rules. Does not happen, period. I would be interested in seeing proof to the contrary. If you are going to rant, at least get the facts straight...
markman's picture
Correct me if I'm wrong! If a 70,000 a-year agent receives $176,493 his final year which includes vacation payout, this persons retirement compensation is calculated on $176,493 (last year of income). This person would receive retirement benefits for life based on the final years income.
SionedOriginal's picture
Incorrect. Payouts are not included in final salary compensation. It varies by contract, but retirement is based on the highest annual salary in the last 12-36 months (depending on the contract agreement). Vacation cashouts are not part of the annual salary, and are not included. CalPERS has a website that explains retirement calculations, if you are interested.
WarHound's picture
Well no surprise there, Downtown Jerry Brown is a Union Pandering piece of garbage that wants every resident in the state of California to pay more taxes through vehicle registration fees, personal income tax, and sales tax. Yet he sees no need for pension reform and reigning in abuse by overpaid state workers! Well I say, SCREW YOU BROWN...take your taxes and shove it up your *$$!
SionedOriginal's picture
The contract does not allow guards to bank unlimited vacation. The "use it or lose it" policy only exists in the private sector. Once an employee earns vacation, it cannot be taken away. This is the case for all state workers, not just correctional officers. Since prisons are 24/7 institutions, and employees are required to use banked furlough hours before any other time bank, it was nearly impossible for employees to reduce any time bank, let alone vacation time. The contract is simply removing language that is obsolete. There has been no change in policy. This carryover of banked time also existed under the Governator's administration. It is also difficult for officers to use vacation time because it has to be requested months in advance, and can be cancelled due to staff shortage (only so many people can have vacation days at a time) or is someone with more seniority wants that time off instead. Any time off outside of the approved vacation time must be approved by head administrative officials, and is often denied. Given the way the system is set up, combined with the forced furloughs (15% pay cut in exchange for hours they are not able to use) and staffing shortages, it is virtually impossible to reduce vacation time to the DPA standards. Again, not a new issue or policy, just a removal of obsolete language.
kendo's picture
I understand if it's already been earned you can't take it away form them but why would they not just stop accruing the vacation once the 80 days is reached. Why is 'use it or lose it' only currently in the private sector; is there law preventing it for being used for state workers? Is it really an issue of it can't be enforced or just won't be enforced. Is 640 hours is the max there is no reason more than that should show up on a subsequent pay stub.
SionedOriginal's picture
It's kind of a vicious cycle. Hours are earned every month. When employees exceed 640 hours, their Supervisor is, under normal circumstances, required to work with them to come up with a plan to bring their balances down (i.e. take every Friday off, take a two week vacation, etc.). However, due to hiring freezes and other political factors, most agencies and departments are woefully under-staffed, making it impossible to allow others time off for long periods of time. Due to required staffing cuts, departments generally reduce staff through atrition. Once an employee leaves or retires, there is no one hired to take their place. Instead, the workload is distributed to others. (A lot of times those taking up the workload aren't even trained in that area.) Throw that in on top of furloughs and a general negative public view of state employees, and that leads to lower qualified candidates coming in to the workforce, if at all. So in most cases, it is not that the employee is TRYING to bank time, it is just how it works out. Outside of the fact that vacation and sick time are written into the labor agreements, why should any employee, state or private sector, be punished (have time taken away or stop accruing time), for continuing to come to work? State employees are taxpayers too, and get just as upset as everyone else when they see tax dollars being wasted. It is unjust, however, to use them as scapegoats for the budget crisis in California. Even if every single state employee was laid off, it would barely make a dent in the budget deficit. They (and unions) have become the face of the budget issue, and it continues to detract from real issues.

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