State workers see threat to leave-time cash

State workers are circling the wagons in an attempt to protect a benefit that allows them to get paid for unused sick time.

Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, said she is looking into introducing a measure when the Colorado Legislature convenes in January to end the practice, but state workers who get the benefit say it should stay because it is one of the few they have left.

The issue came to light last week when The Daily Sentinel reported that the state has spent more than $58 million in paying for unused leave and sick time since 2008, and is on the hook for about $367 million more, which would be paid out as state workers resign or retire.

The news drew immediate reactions from government workers across the state, many of whom said that while few private sector workers get such a benefit, they deserve to be paid for unused sick time because of all the sacrifices they’ve made since the recession began.

“I am grateful to have a job and feel for those who don’t, but I get real tired of hearing these kind of stories when it is expedient politically and it gets ignored any other time,” Cañon City correctional worker Thomas Beneze said in an email exchange with the newspaper.

“It sounds like class warfare and makes any public employee look like we are on the take and screwing the public,” added Beneze, an alternative state delegate representing the Fremont County Republican Party. “We become the bad guy in a system where we have no say and never will.”

Regardless, several state lawmakers, including House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said that given the budget cuts forced on the state because of the recent recession, and the need to cut even more in state spending, it’s a benefit the state may no longer be able to afford.

“When Coloradans see government workers with these types of benefits that they’re not getting in their job or ever likely to get in their job, that does cause a problem,” McNulty said. “From a fiscal standpoint, watching all of this money go out the door is very frustrating given the fact that we do have priorities that we need to fund on a state level like K–12 education and roads. So it is absolutely critical that we take a fresh look at the benefits government workers are receiving.”

If a bill is introduced, the government union that represents several state workers, Colorado WINS, said it at least wants lawmakers to consider all the facts.

The group points to such sacrifices state workers already have made, such as unpaid furloughs, no pay raises in years and a new mandate to put more of their paychecks into their own pensions to help keep the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association solvent.

“Taxpayer money should be spent responsibly, and that includes supporting the workers who contribute to our economy by being dedicated to doing their best to serve the people of Colorado,” Colorado Mesa University computer technician Tom Orrell said. “If legislators take this issue up next year, they should have all the facts in front of them, especially the fact that there are just as many differences among public sector workers as there are private sector workers.”

While various state agencies and higher education institutions vary in the benefits they offer, the more than 35,000 workers in the state personnel system can accrue no more than 360 hours of sick time. Retiring workers and those who resign who are near retirement age can get paid for 25 percent of any unused time. Some workers also are allowed to convert some of their sick time to vacation time.



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