Do You Feel Sick?

Paid time off gets a hard look in budget discussions.

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A little bit sick is how I felt when I saw that city of Memphis employees get, on average, 55 paid days off every year, including 18 "sick days" that can be accumulated and rolled over year after year.

My first reaction was that if you get 55 paid days off every year then you are either working in France or a senior member of the United Auto Workers. And if you miss 18 days a year at work because you are sick, then maybe you should change your lifestyle or think about retirement.

With 18 accumulated sick days you could take off the month of January and come back to work knowing that you still had 12 holidays, a few weeks vacation, and 18 more sick days to use or bank. Hearty employees who don't use their sick days each year get four bonus days off.

Pretty sweet package? Yes and no. On closer inspection, the city and county benefits deals are not quite the bonanza they appear to be at a glance.

The sick-days policy and the broader issue of holidays and vacation days are on the table this year in budget discussions. Memphis mayor A C Wharton has proposed cutting the number of paid holidays from 13 to one as a money-saving measure in lieu of layoffs or salary reductions. City councilman Kemp Conrad zeroed in on the "average 55 days off work per year" in his "City of Memphis Reform Plan" last week. He proposed a cap of 30 to 35 paid days off per year.

With politicians always insisting that they are "cutting the fat," it's surprising that this focus on benefits has not happened sooner. I asked Dick Hackett, mayor of Memphis from 1982 to 1991, about it, and he said the debates in his day nibbled around the edges. There was a brouhaha over an additional Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and another one over accumulated overtime.

Hackett himself accumulated some $70,000 worth of accrued vacation and sick leave days as mayor, mayoral assistant, and county clerk. Like his mayoral successor, Willie Herenton, he liked to say that he rarely missed a day at work.

Sick days have been something of a sacred cow, but no more.

"This is a national trend," said Hackett. "It's probably the biggest issue in human resources departments in the public and private sector all over the country."

The biggest private-sector employer in Memphis, FedEx, doesn't give its employees a set number of sick days each year and does not let employees accumulate sick time and get paid for it, said spokeswoman Sally Davenport.

"If you are sick you stay home," she said, adding that department supervisors can ask for confirmation from a doctor in some cases.

The city and county benefits plans are less generous than they were 20 years ago. Bonus days have to be used within a year and cannot be accumulated. Elected officials don't earn sick leave. The maximum number of sick days per year is 18 for employees hired after 1993. They can be accumulated indefinitely, but a retiring employee can only get paid for 75 unused sick days on a maximum salary of $20,000, which works out to $5,700. Theoretically, an employee could call in sick 18 days every year, but a supervisor is supposed to check it out after three days, according to the policy manual.

Conrad said his budget ideas are "reasonable and doable, but some are harder than others." He proposes putting a cap on paid time off of 30 to 35 days a year for all employees, except those in public safety whose shift differentials mandate a different standard. He did not put a dollar-figure on the estimated savings, but he says it stands to reason that capping paid time off would require fewer people in city government.

"The mayor is the one guy who can put together a broad coalition for a reasonable package of budget reforms," said Conrad. "I would like to see him lead on it this year. He has the most political capital of anyone."

Wharton's proposed balanced budget has $60 million in cuts and new revenue from one-time sources. A cap on paid days off is an attention grabber and may well be reasonable and doable. Any politician who thinks 55 days a year and a rollover is standard practice in this economy should hold a town hall meeting and ask for a show of hands from people who get that from their employer.

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