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The High Cost of Staying on the Job : New rule is needed for state workers’ vacations

Vacations: those days off that are essential to a person’s well-being. But how to define well-being? Many state workers, for instance, are banking vacation days instead of enjoying them. Consequently, when they leave their jobs, they take with them a hefty sum representing unused vacation time. For California taxpayers, this is a costly practice. The payoff for the unused time is based on a state worker’s final salary, which reflects cost-of-living adjustments and promotion increases he or she has earned since the time off was accumulated.

MASSIVE LIABILITY: The state’s potential vacation pay liability is massive. As of June 30, California taxpayers owed their government employees more than $1.1 billion in accumulated vacation time, according to the state con- troller’s office. Unless the state can put more muscle behind efforts to get workers to voluntarily use their accumulated days, the state De- partment of Personnel Administration should consider a strict cap on accrued vacation. This would be a good time to start. The state is currently negotiating its 21 collective bargaining agreements. It could put an enforceable va- cation cap on the bargaining table.

Official state policy and negotiated employee contracts set a 50-day maximum for vacation time, or 80 days for employees who decide to forgo sick days in exchange for a more generous “annual leave system.” But there is no mechanism to enforce these generous limits or prevent accrued days from being carried forward. Supervisors are encouraged to meet with em- ployees to make sure vacation time is used up. Otherwise, workers may put off vacation time for financial benefit.

No one is suggesting that state employees give up their time off. They have earned it and should enjoy--that is, take--vacations in a timely fashion.

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A state survey of the records of 72,000 state employees found that 6,665 had accumulated vacation and leave time in excess of the 50-day limit for vacation accumulation. More than 100 had accrued the equivalent of half a year’s pay or more, and at least one worker had saved up more than 2,000 hours--the equivalent of a year’s pay.

FEDERAL RULES: Many private businesses and the federal government have vacation policies that reflect a “use it or lose it” approach that limits their future liability by putting a cap on the amount of vacation days that an employee can carry over into the next year. The federal government’s policy allows workers to carry only 30 days of accrued leave time into the next year. Several states, in- cluding Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Washington, also have 30-day limits.

It would be unfair to cut back on California’s existing, generous limits on vacation time. But it would be reasonable to issue a new rule to keep state employees from gathering excessive vacation time.

Attention, all state workers: Please enjoy yourselves and take a little more time off.

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