Lawmakers urged to curb state retiree payouts

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BOSTON – The sponsor of a bill that would limit payments for accrued sick-leave and vacation time for government workers who retire acknowledged Tuesday that her bill is unlikely to become law this session but urged fellow lawmakers to nonetheless take steps against “extraordinary payouts.”

“Taxpayers are angry,” Rep. Colleen Garry told the Joint Committee on Public Service Wednesday. “The private sector doesn’t usually get this kind of thing because the private sector can’t afford to do it. Why should the public sector be able to afford to do it?”

Garry, a Dracut Democrat, said she proposed the measure (H 4289) after learning of payouts totaling nearly $400,000 made to the retiring president and executive vice president at Middlesex Community College and later hearing about the $269,984 payment made to former Bridgewater State University President Dana Mohler-Faria. In New Jersey, such lump-sum payments are often referred to as “boat checks” because they’re frequently large enough to be used for that purpose.

In March, following reports detailing Mohler-Faria’s compensation package, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago announced an “official and comprehensive review of decades-old leave policies” in the state’s higher education system. State workers typically can accrue unused time off and sick leave from year to year as long as they work for Massachusetts, and the payouts compensate them for all the days they did not use each year.

The  budget proposal for fiscal 2017 passed by the House of Representatives included an amendment creating a commission to study sick-leave buyback policies at state agencies, with a report due by October.

Under Garry’s bill, payments for unused sick or vacation time made to departing employees across the public sector would be capped at 15 percent of their annual salary. The limit would only apply to new employees and wouldn’t affect workers whose benefits come under previously negotiated agreements, Garry said.

“I know that this bill is not going to pass the way that it is, and I ask you to try to help us figure out the best way to do this, to save the taxpayers, to make it fair for those who are paying the bill but to honor our public employees and pay them what they’re worth now, not just push off their payments to the future,” Garry said.

Garry’s bill was met opposition from a series of unions representing public employees, including the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, the New England Police Benevolent Association, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Union leaders described reports of large payouts for administrators as outliers that do not reflect rank-and-file workers who earned their leave.

MTA President Barbara Madeloni said the bill “sweeps away collective bargaining rights and fair compensation for state, municipal and county employees.”

“This bill would also unjustly undermine the diligent work being done by those public servants who put off vacation time and sick leave in the interest of getting the job done, those who sacrifice time with family and friends with the knowledge they will be compensated for the sacrifice in the future,” Madeloni said.

Sen. James Timilty, who co-chairs the Public Service Committee, responded that he had “some concerns with the large payouts, but not what has been bargained for in good faith.”

Timilty said there is a “jarring” inequity when comparing adjunct professors who work without benefits to administrators who receive substantial payouts at retirement on top of their regular compensation.

“Those are some of the inequities that we’re sent here, in a very historic room, to address,” he said after the unions testified. “I understand your argument and share some of those sentiments, but this conversation, I think, will go on.”

Garry told the News Service she believed her bill would have “a hard road to go” with unions “completely against” it. She said she is running unopposed for another term and plans to keep working on the issue next session.

“Where do you draw the line? Do you draw it monetarily, anybody that makes above a certain amount of money, or do you draw it where they’re part of the union or not part of the union? It’s going to be a very difficult situation to try to draft,” Garry said. “That’s why I figured we would at least put this in and get the conversation going.”

Written by Katie Lannan