STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 21, 2012)
The top 20 managerial positions at the City of Vero Beach offer an unpublicized and unusual fringe benefit: four weeks of annual paid vacation after two years on the job, increasing to five weeks of paid vacation after the fifth year.
This policy applies to heads and assistant heads of city departments, as well as to the top positions of city manager, city clerk and city attorney, Human Resources Manager Lynne George confirmed last week.
The special perk for the “professional” employee has been a long-standing recruitment tool to attract talent to the city, but it’s a secret Vero likes to keep under wraps, said Indian River County Administrator Joe Baird.
“That number of vacation days the professional employees get is unbelievable. It’s ridiculous, it blows my mind,” Baird said. “I just really can’t figure out how they can do that, and how their managers can take that much time off.”
That’s only the most generous piece of the city’s vacation, holiday and sick leave policy, which sees any Vero Beach employee with 20 years of service receive 48 paid days off per year.
That’s nine weeks and three days out of 52 weeks – or almost one week for every four weeks worked.
Twenty-five days of that is vacation time, plus 12 days of sick time plus 11 paid holidays. Not counting any time the employee has banked, if he or she took all the time allotted each year, that employee’s desk or seat or truck or patrol car would be empty the equivalent of nearly one day every single work week.
The vacation time alone for a 20-year employee amounts to five weeks or nearly 10 percent of the year off duty.
According to a CNN report published in May, based upon a study commissioned by JetBlue Airlines, American workers surveyed receive an average of 15 days or three weeks of vacation time per year.
Of that, the average worker leaves 11 days of vacation time unused in the past three years since the recession hit, even though most in the private sector end up forfeiting the time. The study showed people were reluctant to go on holiday because “employees who saw their workloads build up over those years feel they can’t afford to take time off.”
One fifth of workers said they had no money to travel, so they would rather be on the job and not have work pile up awaiting their return. Nine percent told researchers conducting the study that they were insecure about their jobs and were actually afraid to take time off because they didn’t want the boss to realize that things ran smoothly without them.
Vero Beach department heads apparently felt no such pressures or had no such concerns. Public records show that, with a few exceptions, most of them took a full three to four weeks’ vacation per year over the past 10 years.
The county has a considerably more restrictive vacation policy, giving employees 10 vacation days annually from one year of service until the five-year mark. They then receive an additional one day per year until the 14th year when they top out at 20 vacation days per year.
Though four weeks is a typical holiday for Vero’s top staffers, there were a few notable years in the public record.
In 2009, when Vero Beach Electric was in crisis and customers were paying 54 percent higher rates than Florida Power and Light, Electric Utility Director R.B. Sloan took six weeks paid vacation. That same year, Power Resources Director Jim Stevens took five weeks and four days’ paid vacation off from running the Big Blue power plant
In 2008, 2009 and 2010, the man in the city’s proverbial hot seat, City Manager Jim Gabbard took four weeks and two days of paid vacation each year.
In 2010, City Attorney Charles Vitunac took nearly five weeks off
In 2006, then-Police Chief Don Dappen took six weeks and four days off and Public Works Director Monte Falls took six weeks and two days off for his vacation.
Councilwoman Tracy Carroll, asked about the generous vacation policy for the city’s “professional”employees, said she had never been told of its existence, despite the fact that paid time off has been a popular discussion item with the council since the fall of 2010.
“I’m very surprised and it concerns me that there are other policies within the city like this that we should question, but that we’re not being told about to protect benefits as we try to cut back on the excesses of the past,” Carroll said.
“I’m very disappointed that as we ask for information, we need to craft our questions in such a way that looks at all these possibilities,” she said.
In its recent efforts to curb the expense incurred going forward from banked time off, Carroll said the council may have addressed these accelerated benefits if they had known about them. Extra vacation time granted to the city’s top-paid employees exponentially affects the sum of cash payouts upon retirement.