State workers retiring with silver parachutes on taxpayers' dime

State workers retiring with silver parachutes on taxpayers' dime »Play Video
SEATTLE -- Imagine retiring with an extra bonus in your pocket. Some state workers get just that -- a silver parachute of sorts come retirement.

The notion gets sharp responses from budget-conscious Washingtonians.

"It seems pretty unjust," said one person.

"This isn't chump change that we're talking about," said another.

How about a $40,000, $50,000, even a $64,000 parachute?

"That kind of money? I mean, oh God, I could only dream of making that kind of money right now," said Greg Young, a freshman at the University of Washington.

For the past 30 years, all state workers have been able to cash in one-fourth of their unused sick leave at retirement. Whether they're policing the highways or keeping them drivable, working with social services, or helping college students get an education, those high-priced payouts are available at retirement.

And KOMO News has found during the last biennium, all those silver parachutes cost state taxpayers a total of $21.3 million. In the first 11 months of the current biennium, the amount is already at $12,182,000.

"Coming from the private sector it's kind of a novel concept that you get to cash out your sick leave," said Jason Mercier, director of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

In fact, it's a benefit most private sector workers can only dream of. The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are from 1997, and the bureau found that only 17 percent of private sector workers can cash out sick leave benefits.

And the numbers have gone down since then, according to World at Work, a major human resources association. According to World at Work, in 2010 only 6 percent in the private sector have any type of sick leave cash out.

With Washington now facing a $4.5 billion budget gap, Mercier believes getting rid of this program is a no-brainer.

"You're not going to gimmick your way to balancing that; you have to make hard decisions this should be one of the easier ones," he said.

"When the economy gets tough, folks look at that kind of stuff," said Tim Welch with the Washington Federation of State Employee, which represents 40,000 of the state's 110,000 workers. Welch believes in general, the sick-leave cash out, meant to be an employee incentive, works well, but acknowledges some problems.

"There have been abuses we believe at the higher levels - folks who can manipulate their schedules," he said.

KOMO News looked deeper into the numbers and found that higher education accounts for about half of the cash-outs. And managers at the University of Washington and Washington State University pulled in the biggest payouts with top cash outs of $43,225, $54,616, even $64,366 for directors and deans.

Those silver parachutes raise questions on campus where students have seen tuition jump 13 percent both last year and again this year.

"It's just so much money," said Young, who had to get a part-time job to cover costs.

Katy Lester worries about her parents footing the bill.

"And if they're getting cheated out of money, then that's just unfair," she said.

But the negative reaction isn't universal.

"Well, I don't have any problem with people cashing out sick leave if it was in their original worker contract to do such," said host parent
Colleen Sullivan, who thinks it would be ridiculous to go back after someone's worked a job for 20 years and take a benefit away.

WFSE's Welch says the sick leave payouts shouldn't be eliminated just because some may have abused the system. Welch says that could hurt lower paid workers who depend on the benefit.

"But we don't think that the lower paid custodians should be penalized because the higher-ups are able to manipulate the system," Welch said.

The Legislature passed the program in 1979 as an attendance incentive, but also included the provision that it could be revoked at any time. With all of the state's labor unions currently in contract negotiations - and we understand no one is talking about pay raises - it remains to be seen if sick leave payout will be on the table.