Baker seeks to limit sick pay for state workers

Sam Doran/SHNSGov. Charlie Baker during a COVID-19 press briefing at the Statehouse.

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is making another attempt to cap expanding sick time banks for state employees that have taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

Baker’s plan, tucked into his preliminary $45.6 billion budget, would limit a vast number of state employees to accruing 1,000 hours of sick leave, or about six months’ worth. The limit is expected to save the state more than $8 million a year.

Baker has argued that capping sick time accruals will save taxpayers money and align state benefits with those of other states and the private sector.

The cap would only affect the executive branch. As of Friday, at least 5,400 employees whose departments answer to the governor had banked 1,000 hours of sick time or more, according to the Baker administration. That's roughly 12% of the executive branch's workforce.

Those figures don’t include quasi-governmental agencies, the state court system or the five-campus University of Massachusetts, the state’s second-largest employer with more than 24,000 employees.

Beacon Hill watchdogs say the state's current policy is unsustainable, especially with a sizable portion of the workforce set to retire in the coming years.

"Sick pay shouldn't roll over, year after year," said David Tuerck, president of the Beacon Hill Institute. "It only drives up the overall cost of the state budget."

That's because retiring state employees are allowed to cash out 20% of their unused time.

Under current state law, public employees get up to 15 days of sick time a year. Benefits vary but all state workers can accrue unlimited amounts of sick time during their time on the job.

In 2017, state Inspector General Greg Cunha found more than 10,400 employees — about 12% of the state’s 90,000-member workforce — sitting on 1,000 hours or more of unused time. That represented a liability of more than $117 million for taxpayers.

Baker's efforts to reel in the state's payroll liabilities face resistance in the Legislature, which is reviewing his budget. Similar proposals by the governor have been flatly rejected in the past by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.

Public employee unions oppose changing sick leave policies, accusing the Baker administration of bypassing the collective bargaining process.

"This is a benefit that was negotiated in good faith and included in a contract signed by our union and the governor," said Jim Durkin, legislative director for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 35,000 government workers. "Any changes to that benefit should be negotiated through the same process."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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