By Christie Duffy
Cashing out on time off means big retirement bonuses for some.
In Paterson, the city had to borrow nearly $5 million to pay out 51 retiring police officers and firefighters, paying $135,000 in unused sick time to their outgoing police chief, James Witting.
And state Sen. Nicholas Sacco will get a $143,000 check for the sick days and vacation time he never used. And that’s not counting the $101,504 he already cashed in on. Sacco is not only a state senator, but is also the mayor and school district administrator for North Bergen, in Hudson County.
The five municipalities in the state that owe the most for unused sick and vacation time payouts are Jersey City, with $81 million owed; Newark with $47 million; Atlantic City with $34 million; and Elizabeth and Hackensack, with almost $20 million owed to public workers for their unused sick time.
If you add up all the sick time payouts owed in the state, the Department of Community Affairs says it comes out to about $825 million. And that bill is on the towns and the taxpayers.
“There is a limited amount of money and could potentially mean modest tax increases, reductions in services,” said New Jersey League of Municipalities Executive Director Bill Dressel.
Gov. Chris Christie has been pushing for reform for years.
“They call it a boat check. The people who get it call it a boat check and you know why? It’s the money they use to buy their boat when they retire,” Christie said.
Legislation passed in 2012, capping state employees at $15,000 for unused sick time.
A bipartisan bill is currently in committee in the New Jersey legislature that would throw out the practice of paying public employees for unused sick and vacation time. If this latest bill does become law, public employees who who have already accrued unused sick time pay would get to keep it.
“What was designed for first as an incentive to reduce down time has in some cases resulted in golden parachutes. It is really something that we can’t afford any longer,” said New Jersey School Boards Association Deputy Executive Director Frank Belluscio.
Unions across the state say they’re open to talking about reforms, but say the vast majority of their union members won’t get sick time payouts, that it’s the supervisors and administrators who would get the big checks and those positions are outside collective bargaining agreements.
Police unions want prior earned time to be protected, but they are open to closing the door on sick time payouts for future officers. “That money should be used to hire more law enforcement officers that this state so desperately needs,” said New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Anthony Wieners.
The state teachers union says this issue should be settled at the bargaining table, and not by legislators.