Sweeney's bill limits cashing out sick time

Posted: February 08, 2012

TRENTON - Senate President Steve Sweeney on Tuesday introduced a bill to curtail the practice of public employees cashing out sick time when they retire, allowing workers to keep the amount of money they've accrued but preventing them from banking any more sick leave going forward.

Legislation to curb sick-time payouts has been stalled since December 2010, when GOP Gov. Christie vetoed a measure to allow for a $15,000 payout cap going forward, saying that cash value of unused sick time should be eliminated. Christie also wanted current employees to draw down on their banked time when taking future vacation or sick days - something he has since backed off.

While the governor has eased on freezing benefits retroactively, he pushed hard to get rid of payouts going forward. At town hall events, the governor has ridiculed Democrats for stalling on the issue and has started referring to the payouts as "boat checks" because some retirees who worked in the public sector and banked their sick time have been using the payments to buy boats.

On Tuesday, Sweeney (D., Gloucester) offered a plan that stops future payouts but lets workers keep the days they had saved.

"Millions of dollars in sick leave time have been accrued because of the governor's action and unwillingness to compromise, money that will have to be shelled out by the taxpayers of this state," Sweeney said in a statement.

A former iron worker and union negotiator, Sweeney has long said that he believed workers should have to use or lose sick time.

Under Sweeney's bill, employees can roll over sick days and bank them for illnesses going forward, but they can't cash them out at the end.

Christie's administration has estimated the current value of accumulated sick and vacation payout liability for municipalities statewide is $825 million.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), who sponsored a previous bill, wanted to allow retiring government employees to cash out a nominal amount. Sarlo said that would have discouraged employees from using up their sick leave every year. The most recent version of the bill, Sarlo said, would allow for new employees to negotiate for up to $7,500 in payouts.

But Sweeney's bill might have taken the wind out of their sails in moving to eliminate future payouts.

"Listen, we all disagree with these large payouts, but they were negotiated through collective bargaining," Sarlo said. "We've been continuing to have discussions with the front office, and there are a lot of proposals and versions out there."

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) said she would continue to "support the work that Assemblywoman Lampitt has done," adding that, "in the end, we're certain that the Assembly and the Senate will come to a consensus."

Municipalities welcomed news that lawmakers might start moving forward with legislation to stem sick-time payouts.

"Large sick leave payouts over the years have had a stranglehold on municipal budget makers, causing towns in some cases to reduce services, increase taxes and/or bonds to pay for these buyouts," said Bill Dressel with the League of Municipalities.

Christie's office said it was looking over the bill but thought it was "a very positive sign that the Senate president has come around to the governor's position that unused sick days should not be cashed in at taxpayer expense, in any amount."

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