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County imposes reforms on new workers

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of May 24, 2012)

While City of Vero Beach officials have wrung their hands for nearly two years over curbing the excessive banking and cash payouts of sick and vacation time, the Indian River Board of County Commissioners took action last year on a plan that will dramatically reduce payouts and save taxpayers thousands of dollars per employee.

“The Indian River Board of County Commissioners, through county Administrator Joseph Baird, has made significant changes to the county’s accrued leave policies, including accrual amounts, carryover, and payouts, for general employees,” said Human Resources Director Jim Sexton. 

Sexton said county officials succeeded in getting the reforms for new employees incorporated into the Teamster’s contract, and will begin negotiating with the firefighters’ union next year when that group’s contract is again open. The firefighters are currently on a three-year contract.

In less than one year, the changes combined with a smaller county staff through cuts and retirements have reduced the booked liability for this paid time off by a half million dollars. Bigger savings, however, will come down the road.

“The changes to sick and vacation accruals and payout limits made last year by the county should result in a significant savings to the county over the long term.  We did not quantify this savings at the time due to the number of variables involved,” said county Budget Director Jason Brown. 

Not counting the constitutional offices like the Sheriff’s Office, the county employs 979 people. That includes 305 general employees, 221 firefighters and 253 Teamsters. The changes apply only to employees hired on or after Oct. 1, 2011.

“The savings will vary depending upon several factors including; employee turnover, rate of pay, sick and vacation usage, length of employment, future union contract changes, etc.,” Brown said.

The county reduced the amount of vacation time that can be carried over from 20 days per year to 15 days, with a maximum of 30 days that can be banked – down from the previous maximum of 75 days.

Under the new policy, employees can bank a maximum of 30 days of sick time, down from the previous 75 days, and upon retirement or death could cash out a maximum of 15 days (120 hours) of sick time instead of 240 hours as in the old policy.

Sexton outlined the changes and ran a typical scenario for both a general employee and one represented by the Teamsters.

The savings was 57 percent for the general employee and 53 percent for the Teamster who had banked the maximum amount of time.

A general employee earning $18 hour who had banked 562.5 hours of sick time and 240 hours of vacation time for a total of 802.5 hours would have received $14,445 under the old system – which still applies to employees hired before Oct. 1, 2011.

That same employee would only be able to bank 225 hours of sick time and 120 hours of vacation, for a total payout of $6,210.

Vero Beach Mayor Pilar Turner said last week she was not aware of what the county had implemented, but that she would get the information and see if any of it was applicable to Vero Beach as it enters negotiations over the sick and vacation time issue.

City Manager Jim O’Connor has urged council members to remember that any changes must be negotiated with the unions and that no proposal should be floated as a foregone conclusion because that could be construed as an unfair labor practice. Without negotiating with a union, all the Vero City Council can change is the policy for management and for general employees who are not covered by a union contract.

The Town of Indian River Shores is also working to revamp its sick and vacation time policy.