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Lawmakers Look To Cut State Employees' Unused Vacation, Sick Leave Pay

State employees hoping to make the most of their vacation time might want to use it now, rather than later. State officials are working with the Florida Legislature to shore up what they see as a multi-million dollar liability in the budget by reducing the amount of money employees can receive for unused vacation time and sick leave. But, several state employees say legislation to do that will further dishearten state workers who have taken cuts and gone without a pay raise for several years.

Currently, employees who leave state employment can get a payout for the amount of hours they’ve accrued for their annual leave. And, under current law, state workers may also receive payment for a portion of their sick leave at the time of retirement, death, or termination after 10 years of service.

But, Republican Representative Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach wants to eliminate the ability of state employees to carry over annual leave into the next calendar year. That means any future unused vacation time accumulated would be lost. And, sick leave payouts could also be taken away for new hires.

Mayfield failed to get that provision passed last session, but says she’s working on a new proposal for 2013. The state is liable for $677 million, and she wants to find a solution that’s fair for both employees and the taxpayers of Florida.

But, some state employees, like Bill Curtis, disagree. He's a correctional officer, who’s quitting his work at the Charlotte Correctional Institution in about two weeks.

“They just want to find a sneaky way to cheat out of paying their bills and they’re doing it to the employees who have been working there retroactively. There’s no grandfathering in here," said Curtis.  "They’re doing it to everybody, and then they’re making it even worse for the people that will come into employment in the state and they’ll be treated even worse.”

The 61-year-old says he’s been let down by all the cuts he’s had to face over the years, and he says things are getting worse under Governor Rick Scott’s regime.

“Mr. Rick Scott has decided he can bully us all around and he’s doing it to us," said Curtis. "He’s really taking big advantage and he has a lot of really smart, highly-paid lawyers that are able to do this to cleverly cheat people out of what the state owes them.”

Scott Hoffman is a police officer in the Florida Panhandle, who’s worked with the state for 25 years and has about 600 hours he’s expecting to get paid for working state holidays and weekends. And, he’ll soon be retiring in the next couple of months.

Hoffman says he agrees the state is facing a huge liability. He adds there might even be some people who abuse the payout system by having excessive amounts of hours, but he says those hours and what is paid to employees needs to be put in perspective. 

“When you really look at the truth of sick leave, we only get paid a fourth of the sick leave that we have at the end of the year. So , in reality, you’re getting a quarter for your dollar and they cap it at a certain amount," said Hoffman. "I think it caps out at 1920 hours. They’ll pay you for a quarter of the 1920. The rest of it, you lose. You don’t get a dime. You only get a quarter for the other part.”

Hoffman says after spending years on the force, he’s gone seven years without a pay raise, had to contribute 3-percent toward his retirement, and now, he says it’s time for the state to pay up, a sentiment shared by Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.

“I do not believe that we should change it for those who have already earned it or those who have already been promised it, but it is costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to pay out sick days that are not being used," said Fasano. "So, if we’re going to change it, and I believe we should, it should be for future employees who are hired after a certain date with them understanding the new rules that are put in place.”

But, that change could cause unions to get involved, like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. It represents about 55,000 state workers, and the group’s spokesman Doug Martin says they are continually getting disillusioned. He says changing the policy will make it hard to entice people to work for the state. He adds it’s just an added attack on state employees.

“So, okay, we’re trying to recruit a new employee and say oh, you’re not going to be able to take all the leave you’re granted and if you’re not able to take it, we’ll just take it back," said Martin. "Sounds like a great recruiting pitch. Come serve the people of Florida. You may not get a raise, you may not be able to take your leave, you may have to pay 25-percent of your salary for health benefits. Come serve the people of Florida.”

The largest portion of the state’s liability is about $425 million for vacation time by career service employees. Another $151 million comes from unused sick time that employees with 10 years or more of service can cash in when they leave state government.

Martin argues those figures are if every single person working for the state left at the same time. AFSCME played a role in getting Representative Mayfield to remove the “unused sick and pay leave” provision from her 2012 bill, and he says he hopes to work with Representative Mayfield again in the future.

Mayfield is currently working to craft the new 2013 proposal with the Department of Management Services and Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins in his new capacity as the state’s Chief Operating Officer. One thing he’s looking at is how the payout is done in the private sector.