Multimillion-dollar drain on taxpayers or earned benefit? Depends on who you ask

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island taxpayers shell out millions of dollars for accrued sick time payouts in what some say is an unfair strain on state and municipal budgets, but others insist is an earned piece of the employees’ compensation package.

Paul Doughty, president of Local 799 of the International Association of Firefighters, argues that in most cases the payouts were added to contracts in years when communities couldn’t afford pay raises for their employees.

“It was a trade-off,” said Doughty. “We’ll give you this instead of raises, which have an immediate impact on the budget. This is something that really depends on which side of the table you sit on.”

On the other side sits Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré and other local and state administrators.

“And it’s not just the city of Providence. It’s everywhere in government, across the country,” Paré said. “It’s just different than the private sector and every contract we open up and discuss, we try to walk that back.”

Survey Says

Target 12 surveyed fire chiefs at Rhode Island’s largest fire departments, reviewed municipal contracts and filed an Access to Public Records Act request with the state.

The number of days employees can accrue ranges widely from contract to contract, with a snapshot of the cost coming from the R.I. Department of Administration.

Over the past three fiscal years, just under $3.9 million has been paid out to retirees who didn’t use all of their sick time during their careers in various state departments.

sick-time-payout

Overall, 380 state retirees received an average of about $10,000 during that time span.

“Cultures are difficult to change.” – Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré

A review of municipal contracts on the Department of Revenue’s website shows the number of days public sector employees can bank for their golden years varies from community to community, and from department to department within those communities.

For example, Warwick firefighters can accrue up to 140 sick days, with 75 percent of that monetized when they retire.

Once they reach the 140-day cap, their contract pays them annually for up to 15 days of unused sick time throughout their careers.

Warwick general employees can accrue up to 120 days, receiving half of the total when they leave their jobs. Or they can “apply unused sick leave to purchase additional months of creditable service,” according to the contract.

Walk It Back

Providence’s fire department contract shows signs of Paré’s statement that the city has tried to “walk back” the benefit.

While there’s no limit to how many unused sick day can be accumulated by firefighters hired before July 2012, there is a 140-day cap for firefighters hired after that date.

Paré provided stats that show how costly the payouts can be in years like fiscal 2016, when an unusually high number firefighters retired.

The cost for police payouts was just over $475,000 that year.

Firefighter payouts totaled more than $1.7 million for the same period, with dozens of veterans calling it quits during the bitter contract dispute that was resolved in September.

Across the state, firefighters and police officers do not need to use their contracted sick time if they are injured or become ill while on duty. State law allows them unlimited time off to recover in those cases due to the dangers they face.

Give It To Everyone?

“I wouldn’t call it a bonus. It’s something we earn.” – Paul Doughty, President, Local 799 IAF

Doughty’s response to anyone who criticizes the payouts is that private sector employees should also receive the benefit.

“It’s not something that we say, we should have it and only we should have it,” Doughty said. “We think all workers [in the public and private sector] should have it.”

The counterpoint comes from Paré, who worked in the private sector between retiring from Rhode Island State Police and taking the job with Providence. According to their contract, Rhode Island State police receive unlimited sick time but do not receive unused sick time payouts when they retire.

“I view [sick time] as an insurance policy,” Paré said. “If you’re healthy, great. You don’t need to use any sick time. But there shouldn’t be a bonus for you at the end of your 30- or 40-year career.”

Doughty emphasizes that unions are more than likely open to negotiate their respective sick time accrual clauses, but they’re not going to give it up for nothing.

“I wouldn’t call it a bonus. But it is compensation,” Doughty said. “It is part of the contract and if the city wants us to give it up, they know there has to be something in return.”

As the state and municipal workforce gets older, the cost of accrued sick time payouts can be expected to go north, according to Paré.

“If we have 15 or 20 retire in the same year and they were relatively healthy and they have an accrued sick time of 140 days each,” said Paré. “You do the math. That’s going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

The other side is convinced that if sick time is considered a benefit, not using it during your career is worth something.

“That doesn’t take away our strong belief that all workers should enjoy this benefit,” added Doughty.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.