Vacation, sick days scrutinized as source of thrift

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Budget woes could cut short some city employees’ long vacations.
Municipal leaders across the state are eyeing a common practice where government workers stockpile unused vacation and sick leave. In some cases, they accrue several years’ worth that they can redeem in one lump sum for time off, cash or early retirement.
But with the nation’s economic slump stretching into yet another fiscal year, some cities might limit or end the practice to save money.
The issue surfaced recently in Saltillo where Alderman Scott Knight reportedly told employees he wants to switch to a use-it-or-lose-it policy. Anyone who doesn’t use their 12-18 days of annual vacation by year’s end, he proposed, would lose it.
Currently, workers can roll over unused vacation and sick time from year to year. If they don’t use it while employed with the city, they can get paid for up to 240 hours of stored vacation, or get retirement credit for them. They lose their unused sick time, however.
“Out of the 24 employees, there are 10 that have already accrued 240 hours,” said Saltillo City Clerk Mary Parker, who confirmed Knight’s recent proposal. “With all the vacation time that has been accrued by all the employees, it is an asset city of $57,536.”
Knight could not be reached for comment.
The city of Southaven would have to cover $1.3 million worth of vacation time if all its employees took their stockpiled hours this year, said Human Resource Director Wesley Brown.
Brown said Southaven workers can accrue unlimited vacation, but the city pays only 160 hours worth upon resignation or retirement. If everyone quit today, he said, the city would owe roughly $600,000 for those hours.
Employees also can bank sick time, but it caps at 240 hours with additional time rolling into state retirement credit.
Southaven leaders this year are considering a use-it-or-lose it policy to eliminate rollovers, Brown said. He doesn’t know if it will pass or not.
“The majority of our employees been here so long and have massive amounts of vacation accrued,” he said. “I’ve been here 10 years, and the vacation that I earned at a lesser rate of pay costs the city more if I take it today because now I earn a higher rate.”
Tupelo workers have one year to spend earned vacation, but their unused days roll over into sick time that can be stored with no limit. Employees then can take sick days for themselves, donate them to needy colleagues or put them toward retirement.
The Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi allows state workers to put unused leave toward their retirement benefits. Some employees have gained several years of credit by stockpiling hours.
At least one Tupelo City Council member said the municipality should limit the number of hours to reduce Tupelo’s liability.
“We should be able to cap sick days at 90 days,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, who serves on a subcommittee of council members studying employee benefits.
Tupelo paid roughly $400,000 in sick pay during the previous fiscal year, said city Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris. It’s unclear how much of that pay came from donated sick leave.
Employees regularly donate unused sick time to colleagues with extended illnesses or medical treatments.
“One woman left the city and had 504 hours of sick time saved up that she donated to another employee who was out with cancer,” said Assistant Human Resource Director Contanna Purnell.
Saltillo doesn’t allow workers to donate sick leave. Several employees there said they save their unused days in case of their own emergencies or to put toward retirement. They don’t want the rules to change.
“It’s a phantom number on the budget,” said Saltillo Public Works Director Richard Feist, who said he has six months of unused leave saved up. “It has to be budgeted, but the chances of the city having to pay it out just aren’t there.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com