Unused sick/vacation time costly for taxpayers

At least, $100 mil paid to gov't workers since '07

Public employees across South Florida and along the Treasure Coast are leaving their government jobs with lots of extra cash.  How?  Not using years of sick and vacation time.

It's a common public perk Palm Beach County's Human Resources Director, Wayne Condry, calls an incentive to lure candidates into the government job market.

"We typically don't pay what the private sector pays for similar kinds of jobs," said Condry.

It's also a perk former school band director Allen Gilbert worked hard to earn.

After 39 years with the Martin County School district, Gilbert retired last year with more than 2,500 hours of unused sick time.

"I didn't even know it was that much," he said.

According to records, those hours added up to a more than $103,000 sick day pay out, upon his retirement.

"I was blessed with being in good health almost every day of my working career," said Gilbert who says a mental health day was, "not something I needed."

The Contact 5 Investigators along with our partners at Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers reviewed the records of thousands of  public employees and found since 2007, local taxpayers have paid, at least, $100 million to public employees who had accumulated unused sick and vacation time.

 In Palm Beach County taxpayers spent more than $65 million on payouts to school district employees alone. 

"Million?  In Palm Beach County?"  School Board Chair, Dr. Debra Robinson was surprised at the figures.

"Million?  Seriously?  I just never looked at those numbers before.  That's a huge number," she said.

While many government agencies cap how much paid time off employees can accumulate or how much money employees can cash in from unused sick and/or vacation time, the Palm Beach School District does not limit the number of sick days employees can carry over.  That's how a local high school principal retired last year with a sick time balance of nearly 4,000 hours, worth more than $264,000.   

"I had no idea the number was this large.  So, it's clearly something worth exploring," said Robinson when asked if limits should be placed on school district employees who accumulate large amounts of unused sick balances.

According to county sick and vacation balance records, since 2007 county government employees have been paid out more than $22,000,000 for unused sick and vacation time.   It's a costly expense says Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller, Sharon Bock.  She eliminated the benefit after realizing the benefit was costing her office too much money since employees who are paid out for unused time, are typically paid at the rate they leave not necessarily the rate they were being paid at the time they earned the time off.

"Many times that salary is 2, 3, 4, even 10 times what they started with," she said.

In 2009, the clerk had to lay off employees for the first time in a century.  At that time, Bock says, for every 3 employees laid off, she had to lay off one more person just to pay out the accrued vacation and sick time owed to those employees.

"It was ridiculous," she said.

She says, the new "use it or lose it" policy has saved the clerk's office about $600,000 per year.

Palm Beach County commissioners have modified the county's paid leave policies twice since the 1980s.  According to County HR Director, Wayne Condry, both revisions were born out of tough economic times.  When asked whether new changes could come, Condry said it could, but added, "if they were asking for my opinion, now would not be the time to do something like this.  County employees haven't had a pay raise in 4 years and pending some unusual circumstance, I don't see there be a pay raise this year as well so it will be 5 years straight without a pay raise." 

Condry also explains how the benefit is negotiated with employee unions, so any changes would not happen right away and would have to be approved by those unions.

Retired public employee Allen Gilbert agrees the perk should stay..

"I was there every day, I worked very hard.  I did my job to the best of my ability.  I think I deserved it."

There's no doubt Gilbert earned it, while everyone paid for it. 

Next page: View data the Contact 5 Investigators used in this report.

Through Florida public information laws, the Contact 5 Investigators were able to obtain information that details the amount sick, vacation and leave time some government employees in Palm Beach County have earned from 2007 to 2011.

The Investigators were also able to obtain details about the amount of money different government agencies in the county have already paid out to employees that were qualified to receive money for unused hours.

There are a number of different factors that affect the amount of money an employee is able to receive, such as how long they have been with the agency and when they began working there. There are also a number of policies, some state and some county, that detail how much money an employee can receive for their hours earned. Some of those policies are negotiated with the government agency and union organizations.

Below is the information as WPTV received it from the county agencies. We have also included links to the policies that apply to the employees balances and payouts they would qualify for.

Note: Through a state public information request, the Contact 5 team asked the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office for similar information but has not received it as of air date.

These documents detail the amount of money agencies have paid to employees:

These documents detail current balances employees have earned. These amounts have not been paid out by the agency:

These are the policies that determine how much money an employee is qualified to receive based on the number of hours earned:

Click here for data and information about county employees working in the Treasure Coast.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.

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