Taxpayers are funding unused sick leave payouts or "boat checks"

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on September 17, 2012 at 10:29 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 31 at 10:52 AM

AUSTIN -- Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey first coined the phrase in 2011.
 
“They call it the 'boat check.' You know why? Because it’s the check they use to buy their boat upon retirement and it’s your money,” Christie said late last year.

According to a 2010 human resources survey, only six percent of private sector companies still payout unused sick time.
 
Companies like Dell, for example, the largest private employer in the Austin area, does not allow employees to cash in unused sick time.
 
Austin city records show fire and police employees reeled in $8.8 million in so-called "boat checks" over the past two and a half years.
 
The two biggest checks went to two former police officers. Both retired last year after nearly 28 years on the force. They also cashed in unused sick time worth more than $100,000 each.
 
Only city employees in the fire and police departments can cash in unused sick time.

Austin’s Chief Labor Relations officer Deven Dasai said it’s a benefit negotiated into fire and police contracts.  
 
”I think the one thing to keep in mind is you can’t just look at one part of the contract by itself. You have to look at contract as a package, and the contract as a package is a very fair deal for the city and the employees,” Dasai said.
 
Dasai said the last contract negotiated with fire and police unions actually saved the city money when they agreed to lower pay raises and more citizen oversight, in return for more sick time.
 
Around that time other city departments faced hiring freezes and reduced pay raises to balance a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.

More than 25 years ago Texas lawmakers passed a bill that required cities to pay civil service employees unused sick time at their highest hourly rate, and not at the rates they earned those hours throughout their career.
 
To put it in perspective we found a former police officer who was paid $8.45 an hour when he first started earning sick time hours in 1985. When he retired he cashed in 1,400 hours of unused sick time at $74 dollars an hour, his pay upon retirement.
 
“That’s not fair. It’s an unfunded mandate from the state,” said Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican from House District 45.
 
After providing Isaac our information, he’s now considering drafting legislation that would repeal the law. Isaac’s proposed changes would impact only future employees, not current ones.
 
“If the City of Austin or the City of El Paso chooses to do this, that’s their prerogative and they will answer to their constituents but it shouldn’t be because it’s something that we’ve mandated,“ said Isaac.
 
In addition to paying out unused sick time, we’ve also discovered the city pays out more than twice as many hours as state law requires.
 
The state’s minimum is 720 hours. An Austin police officer can get paid for up to 1,700 hours.
 
The Police Association and the city will start negotiating the next contract later this year.  
 
“Whether there is going to be a change or not is up to the city; the Employee Association,” said Wayne Vincent, the Police Association’s president.
 
Vincent said allowing cops to collect unused sick time is an incentive to not call in sick, ultimately allowing the city to hire fewer full-time employees.
 
Austin isn’t the only local government that pays out unused sick time but of the agencies KVUE checked, and saw that it paid out the most.
 
The state of Texas paid more than $3 million to government employees during the same time, but it’s treated as a death benefit. That means it is only paid out to family members when employees die.
 
Travis County paid much less, about $1.4 million to employees. Williamson County does not pay out unused sick time.

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