Unused sick time, vacation payouts questioned in Groton

Groton - Some Town Councilors plan to ask questions tonight about a longstanding practice of giving non-union employees payouts at the end of the fiscal year for unused sick and vacation time.

Groton spent about $33,176 in June on sick and vacation leave payouts to its non-union employees, mostly department heads and supervisors, according to figures provided by the finance department. That's about 30 percent less than it paid in 2012, when it gave about $47,814 in payouts, figures show.

Some councilors want to review this policy or believe it needs more oversight.

Groton has 42 non-union staff whose benefits are spelled out in a 2007 agreement, which allows them to cash in up to 11 days of unused vacation time, as long as they took at least 15 vacation days during the year.

It also sets parameters for sick time. Non-union staff get 15 sick days a year. The agreement allows non-union employees to accumulate a maximum of 250 sick days, after which they must convert any unused days to pay at the end of the fiscal year. Sick days are paid out at a rate of one day's pay for every three days of unused leave.

Sick leave payouts apply to all employees, not just non-union staff, Finance Director Sal Pandolfo said.

Data on sick leave payouts for non-union staff show little change during the last three years. The total declined slightly from $19,573 in June 2012 to $19,153 in June 2014, according to the finance figures.

At the same time, vacation payouts fell significantly, from about $28,241 in June 2012 to about $14,023 in June 2014, the data show. The number of employees taking vacation payouts also declined from a dozen people in 2012 to five people this past June, figures show.

Town Manager Mark Oefinger said the drop is due to a change made in 2011.

"We stopped budgeting for vacation payouts in (fiscal year) 2011 with the understanding that folks should make every effort to use their vacation time because funds were not being budgeted," Oefinger said.

The policy of giving payouts, outlined in the 2007 agreement, was set 10 years earlier, he said. Before 1997, employees were allowed to accumulate unlimited unused sick and vacation time, creating a "large future liability for the town," Oefinger said.

The new policy gives employees an incentive not to abuse sick time or call in sick for minor ailments, but also acknowledges that some employees have difficulty using all their sick time due to work responsibilities, Oefinger said.

Town Councilor Rich Moravsik said he believes the practice needs more oversight. Since unused vacation can only be paid out if money is left in the budget, the council should be able to question the reason for it, he said.

"That's fine if that's the case, but it should have someone else's approval on it, to make sure they're not forcing that situation to occur," he said. Otherwise, a department could potentially budget money so that it has enough left at the end of the year, Moravsik said.

He plans to raise the issue at the town council committee of the whole meeting at 6 p.m. today in the Town Hall Annex.

Councilor Bruce Flax said he also received calls about the practice, and had questions about it.

Oefinger said in an email that oversight is not an issue. "...We spend months and months reviewing the budget, every penny is accounted for ..." he said.

Mayor Rita Schmidt said vacation payouts apply to "critical personnel" who have key roles and it would hurt the town to take them away.

"These are not just people you can hire off the street. They need years and years of experience to come into these positions," Schmidt said. "When you can retain people who are that critical to the town, I think you are doing a service to the whole community."




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