Should public workers be able to cash in on unused sick time?

Decision makers weigh in on debate

When former Palm Beach County School Superintendent, Art Johnson, resigned last year,  he left with an additional $158,000 just for sick and vacation time he didn't use.

When former principal of Palm Beach Lakes High, Nathan Collins Jr, retired last year he left with an even bigger check,  more than $227,000 for not calling in sick.

Call it the perk of a public job some local and state decision makers now say could be reconsidered.

The Contact 5 Investigators, along with our partners at Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers, reviewed paid time off records of thousands of  government and school district employees in South Florida.

We found since 2007, taxpayers have paid workers, at least, one hundred million dollars in accumulated sick and vacation time.

In Palm Beach County,  the numbers totaled more than $65 million on school employees alone. 

"Million?  In Palm Beach County?  Million?  Seriously," questioned Palm Beach County School Board member, Dr. Debra Robinson 

"I had no idea the number was this large.  So, it's clearly something worth exploring," she said.

Most government agencies already cap how much money employees can get for unused time off.  As a result, Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana doesn't think more caps are necessary.

"We will address it every year to see if it's fair but I think it's not overly generous, for the most part."

Commissioner Steven Abrams has a different view.

"Going forward it's something that really should be examined as all the county's compensation packages are to conform to what the realities of our economy are," said Abrams.

At the Palm Beach County School District, current policy places no limits for sick time,  which is how more than a half-dozen Palm Beach County School District employees resigned last year with an additional 6-figure check.

It's a topic that is even getting the attention of state lawmakers in Florida and beyond.

New Jersey's governor has gone so far as to initiate a move to cap how much sick time school administrators can cash in on.

State Representative Pat Rooney, of Palm Beach Gardens, believes the ultimate decision should be left to local school boards to decide, but he says the issue needs to be discussed and examined.

"We're trying to do a balancing act where we want to compensate the state employees as best as we can but, at the same time, be fair to the taxpayers who are funding this so it's not something that's out of whack which that number sounds like it is," he said, referring to the $65 million in school district payouts last year.

President of the Palm Beach County Teachers Union warns any cap should not be placed on teachers.

"If they want to keep the good teachers and they want to continue having teachers come into the profession that want to make it a career instead of a job, I think it's something that needs to stay there.   They earn it," said Debra Wilhelm.  Wilhelm also points out that if teachers called out sick, the district would have to pay substitutes to work.

Any changes to government sick and vacation time policies would not be implemented immediately.  Since this benefit is built into many employee union contracts, any new changes would also have to approved by those unions.

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