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8/12/2009
Councilman Bob Weiner: We can no longer afford NCC sick leave carry-over policy which costs taxpayers millions; Weiner calls for policy review. - Community News

Councilmen Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) and Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek), who voted against a tax hike in May, have called for a review of sick leave policies, which they say cost too much. "Our policy is out of line with what is done in the private sector," Weiner said. "It may have been done this way in government for a long time, but we can't keep doing the same things."

Critics take aim at NCCo's sick leave policy

By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
Posted Aug 12, 2009 @ 11:30 AM
Last update Aug 13, 2009 @ 11:23 AM

Wilmington, Del. —

As tax bills -- 25 percent higher than last year -- reach the hands of New Castle County residents, citizens and lawmakers are increasingly calling for reining in government spending.
The latest target: employee sick leave.

A flurry of recent e-mails between citizens, council members and County Executive Chris Coons' office have raised questions about a policy that provides employees year-to-year sick day carryover and a capped severance payout for unused days upon ending employment on good terms.

Councilmen Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) and Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek), who voted against a tax hike in May, have called for a review of sick leave policies, which they say cost too much.

"Our policy is out of line with what is done in the private sector," Weiner said. "It may have been done this way in government for a long time, but we can't keep doing the same things."

Jack Wells, a Heritage Park resident who has been following the issue, said taxpayers who don't work in the public sector don't understand how the county's system works.

"Sick leave is a benefit provided by the taxpayers to protect them from financial hardships, which could include loss of medical coverage during times of extended illness when working," he said. "Paying employees 100 days of sick leave at retirement changes my understanding that this is a benefit provided for the purpose stated."

Indeed, retiring employees are eligible for half the balance of their unused leave, up to 100 days. Employees who leave the county for other reasons are paid for half of their unused balance up to 20 days. Employees earn one sick day for each month they are with the county.

Sheldon said he'd like to see the number of days accrued reduced, but acknowledged that sick leave is a benefit negotiated through collective bargaining, meaning lawmakers cannot change the policy without buy-in from the unions. But Sheldon said it should be discussed.

"It has to be on the table," Sheldon said. "It's a huge budget item."

In the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, $618,909 was paid out in unused sick to leave to 40 retiring employees. The year before, $1.2 million was paid out to 58 retirees.

But unused sick time can benefit the county, too. Last year, 25,502 unclaimed sick hours were not paid out to retirees because of the caps in place, saving the government more than $1 million.

"If they want to force us to use it all, then we will," said Kenneth Dunn, who heads the union representing county paramedics and 911 call operators. "But I don't know how any council member can fault an employee who's been productive and done the right thing by not taking sick days when they weren't sick."

Dunn said offering retirement payouts gives employees incentive not to call out of work unnecessarily. And what's more, the county offers no short-term disability, instead encouraging employees to bank sick days in case they become ill or suffer a serious injury.

"We have to maintain our own sick leave balance for the catastrophic problem that could come up and if we don't, we're on our own," Dunn said. "It wouldn't be fair if they took those days from us just because nothing bad ever happened."

Coons said he has no intention of proposing changes to the policy, and has instead focused on other ways to reduce personnel costs -- through pay freezes, changes to pension vesting, and increased employee benefits contributions.

"My challenge has been to look at the total package of compensation and make sure we are competitive enough to attract quality employees, but also to effectively reduce the rate of growth of those costs," he said. "We've managed to cut that growth from 8 percent when I became county executive to 4 percent this year."


NCCo's Sick Leave Policy By the Numbers
Money paid to retirees for unused sick time:
FY09: $618,909 (40 retirees)
FY08: $1.19 mil. (58 retirees)
FY07: $560,112 (30 retirees)
Money saved from unused sick time in FY09:
$1.03 mil. (25,502 hours)

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