Making Dollars and Sense out of Salaries and Perks

Joe Dwinell’s coverage in today’s Boston Herald of public workers cashing in unused vacation days and sick time makes the blood boil. The perk cost the city of Boston $17 million last year. And at the state level, the paper has documented how workers cashed in over $1 million in unused vacation days at Massport alone. Across the public sector, such pay-outs can either come annually or, in a lavish lump sum, when the worker retires. This has always been galling.

Most of us in the private sector have had to live with a use-it-or-lose-it policy. If Thanksgiving rolls around and you still have unused vacation days, you’d better plan some off time before December 31st or you’re out of luck. Those vacation days go away. I understand that unused sick days are usually part of contract negotiations. But, on a philosophical basis, however they get into the contract, they still make no sense. They’re there to protect you in case you get sick. And, if you don’t get sick, well then, isn’t that better for you? And, when you really do get sick, the flu, for example, how often does the ability to cash in unused sick days at a later day pressure you into going into work, contaminating co-workers and affecting workplace productivity.

The issue of overtime costs is a horse of a different color. If you work overtime, you should be appropriately remunerated. The Boston Globe reports that the city of Boston has reduced overtime by some $15 million, the equivalent of the entire budget of the Parks and Recreation Department. The Police Department alone accounted for $11 million of that, some in payment for police details. The citywide reduction in overtime costs results from focused management and the ability to differentiate between legitimate overtime and overtime abuses.

Lavish perks, including munificent pensions, have traditionally been seen as a fair way to compensate for lower salaries for public sector workers, many of whom are dedicated public servants. But some public sector jobs are plums and treated as jobs for life. Unwarranted perks feed public animus and undermine trust in government. The dark economy has shed light on the need to put salaries and perks on a rational basis.

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