Bergen County Employees Owed 470 Years Worth Of Unused Time
County's total liability nears $54 million to its 2,754 employees
Employees of Bergen County government each get 12 sick days per year. Whatever they don’t use, they accumulate, year after year, over the course of their careers.
At the start of 2011, the county’s 2,754 employees had banked 171,505 sick and vacation days, or 470 years worth, according to the county budget. And banked is the appropriate term, because most of those days likely will be cashed in when the employees retire.
The county’s 2011 budget puts the potential cost for those days at $54.2 million.
That’s a startling number compared to what other New Jersey counties project as their sick and vacation liability. A Patch survey of the budgets of New Jersey’s counties shows that Bergen’s liability for employee sick and vacation time is more than twice as large as any other county.
The closest counties are Middlesex at $24.7 million, Hudson at $23.7 million, and Mercer at $16.8 million. In fact, Bergen County's liability in this area is about equal to the combined total for Essex, Hudson, Morris, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties.
Some officials suggest that Bergen County’s bill for sick and vacation time is larger than other counties simply because Bergen is the state’s largest. But the numbers don’t bear that out. Three counties have more employees than does Bergen, according to statistics provided by the New Jersey Association of Counties (NJAC).
Moreover, Bergen County’s average potential payment per employee is more than 50 percent higher than that of any other county, according to Patch’s analysis of the budget data. The numbers put Bergen County’s average possible payout at $19,686 per employee. The next highest number is $11,777 per employee for Middlesex County.
Freeholder Finance Chairman John Mitchell said the board is planning to take an in-depth look at payroll issues in the coming months as it prepares for its 2012 budget.
“This has to be part of the entire equation,’’ Mitchell said of the sick and vacation time. “It’s going to be one of the areas we target.’’
“This is a very difficult subject to get a handle on because it takes a great deal of supervision, accountability and culture change,’’ said State Senator Loretta Weinberg, who had proposed bill to tighten regulations on public employee leave time.
“Sick time should not be an entitlement that you add on to your vacation,’’ Weinberg added. “Sick time is supposed to be there for employees when they are legitimately sick.’’
Here are some of the other findings of Patch’s budget survey on sick and vacation pay liability:
- The average value of Bergen County employees’ leave time is $316 per day. Only employees in Monmouth County have leave days with a higher value than that, with an average of $339 per day. In Essex, the average value of leave days is $262, in Hudson $222 and in Middlesex $231.
- Bergen County’s law enforcement employees have some of the most valuable accumulations of leave time. The potential total payment for regular Bergen County Sheriff’s officers is $13.6 million; for the county police, it’s $5.9 million; and for rank-and-file prosecutor’s officers it’s also $5.9 million.
- The law enforcement employees also have the highest potential payouts per day. Deputy chiefs in the prosecutor’s office stand to collect $632 per accumulated day, county police are looking at $516 per day and rank-and-file sheriff’s officers $423 per day. In comparison, members of New Jersey Employment Labor Union Local #1, which represents elections workers, has the lowest average per day payment at $117.
- Bergen County also tops the state when leave time liability figures are compared to the overall county budget. In Bergen, the liability reflects about 10.5 percent of the budget. Warren County has the next closest percentage at 8.7 percent. In most counties, the potential sick and vacation time expense equates to less than five percent of the budget.
The $54 million is not a bill that will come due all at once. The number shows how much the county would have to pay all current employees when they retire, based on the number of leave days they had accumulated entering this year. In effect, it’s a bill that county taxpayers will pay off in small increments week after week over the course of decades.
Sometimes, though, those small increments become rather large.
“We’ve all read those stories of people being paid in excess of $100,000, $200,000 when they retire,” said John Donnadio, executive director of New Jersey’s county government association.
As a result, Donnadio said, most local governments have imposed limits on how much money employees can collect on leave time when they retire. Those limits vary from town to town and from county to county. They sometimes also vary within the same government structure.
Weinberg said Bergen County adopted limits on sick and vacation time payment more than 20 years ago, long before most other places in New Jersey.
Under the initial limits, Dispoto said, law enforcement employees could cash in a maximum of $25,000 worth of leave time, workers in some civilian unions had a cap of $20,000 and others had a $15,000 limit, said Dispoto.
In an effort to make the payments more uniform, in 2007 Bergen County adopted a new $15,000 limit for all its workers, Dispoto said.
But in reality, things aren’t that standardized. That’s largely because of grandfather clauses that were included when the limits were imposed.
In short, employees are entitled to keep whatever off-days they had accumulated up to the time when the caps went into effect, officials said. On top of that, they then were able to accumulate a new bank of leave time within the new cap, officials said.
As a result, long-time employees are allowed to cash in banked time that far exceeds the value of the limits that are in place, officials said.
Weinberg said public employees often find ways to circumvent the spirit of the limits. For example, she said, a worker getting ready to retire who has 60 days worth of accumulated time above the threshold of the $15,000 payment cap calls in “quote unquote sick for 60 days.”
State employees are allowed to cash in a maximum of $15,000 in leave time under a policy that includes a grandfather clause similar to the one in Bergen County, officials said.
But the state does not set standardized limits on how much local government employees can collect in unused sick and vacation time.
Weinberg said many of the abuses of sick and vacation payments come at the local government level.
“I’ve never seen a police chief, town manager, or school superintendent take a vacation or sick day before they retire and they end up with these big checks,’’ the senator said. “They’re either the most healthy people in the world, or they love their work so much they can’t bear to be away from it.’’
For high-ranking local officials, Weinberg said there’s very little oversight to confirm the legitimacy of their accumulated time.
“They’re the ones who sign off on their own payroll,’’ she said. “There’s a lot of room for abuse.’’
The state requires that local governments report in their budgets the potential cost of the accumulated leave time payments, but it does not regulate the amounts of those payments, officials said.
“We do not evaluate if they are ‘too high,’ ‘too low,’ or ‘just right,’ since there is no standard or requirement,’’ said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. “We can only require the disclosure.”
Various efforts by state legislators to impose limits on sick and vacation time payments for local government employee have failed.
“There is a bill pending in the Legislature that would impose limits,’’ Ryan said, “but it was conditionally vetoed by Governor Christie to make it stronger. It has yet to be re-considered.”
In his veto, Christie called for these measures:
- Employees convicted of crimes involving their public office would forfeit their accumulated time and not be paid for it.
- A phase-out of the practice of allowing employees to be paid for accumulated sick time so that eventually newly-hired workers would no longer receive the lump sum payments when they retire.
- A requirement that employees use up previous years’ sick and vacation time before they can use new allotments of days. This proposal was designed to reduce the large amounts of leave time that public workers accumulated before any new limits on retirement payments were imposed.
In Bergen County, the calculation of the $54 million in leave time liability does not take into account the $15,000 per person limit, along with all its permutations, Dispoto said. So the potential expense if all employees were to suddenly retire would turn out to be somewhat less than $54 million, officials said. But the county has not done the math to determine exactly how much it’s on the hook for, officials said.
Most of the $54 million worth of accumulated leave time covers sick days. Employees are allowed to carry over just one year’s worth of vacation time, which is a maximum of 20 days, Dispoto said.
Over the past three years, the number of days off that Bergen County workers accumulated has decreased. It went from 176,091 in 2009, to 174,008 in 2010, to 171,505 in 2011.
But that hasn’t produced a reduction in the bottom line. The potential liability has grown by 5.6 percent, rising from $51.3 million in 2009 to $53 million in 2010 to $54.2 million in 2011.
“That’s because the salaries have increased,’’ Dispoto said.