State paying millions for unused leave

Monday, February 7th 2005, 6:16 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The state has paid exiting employees a total of $33 million for unused leave time since 2002, according to published reports.

An analysis by The Oklahoman shows that payments by state government exceed most comparable industries and governmental agencies.

The payments are made under a law allowing state employees to rack up unused vacation time, with a maximum accrual of 60 days, or about 12 weeks. Exiting employees are entitled to payments for the leave, no matter why they leave state government.

The current limits, effective since November 2001, are allowing some employees to leave with checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars.

``It is something that piques my curiosity, and I think it's something we ought to take a look at,'' said Rep. Chris Benge, a Tulsa Republican who controls the powerful House Appropriations and Budget Committee. ``There's a balance we try to walk of trying to make our employment package attractive. But at the same time, allowing for large cash payments makes me a little nervous.''

It could be creating liabilities for the state, said Gary Jones, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

The policy was started because workers for agencies with minimum staffing requirements, such as prisons, were being forced to work overtime because of limited manpower, Jones said.

Because many employees couldn't get overtime pay, but rather compensatory time, workers would compile leave for working extra hours and never get to take their annual vacation time.

Many state agencies keep about 5 percent of their positions unfilled to save money for the unused leave payouts, which creates an understaffing problem and more overtime, Jones said.

``It's a perpetual cycle, and it's feeding off itself,'' he said.

Jones said lowering payments for unused leave isn't easy and increasing staff could help lower payouts.

``You have to have nurses, you have to have direct care, you have to have prison guards,'' Jones said.

A recent study by a human resources association shows slightly more than two in 10 organizations offer cash payments for unused time off.

The leave law breaks down accrual rates, which allows even new state employees to carry over 15 days per year.

About three in 10 organizations allow employees to rack up more than 21 days, according to the same study, called the 2004 Benefits Survey.

The study was compiled by the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest human resource management association.

Topping last year's list was former chief medical examiner Fred Jordan, who collected about $39,000 in August when he left the state Board of Medicolegal Investigations. Attempts to reach Jordan were not successful.

Those collecting more than $30,000 last year also included a former vice chancellor for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and a secretary to Senate President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson, D-Lexington.

The largest payout during recent years went to Hans Brisch, former state chancellor for higher education. He collected more than $74,000 in January 2003.

The check was for 173 hours, which averages about $429 per hour.

Brisch is now recovering from cancer treatments.

``You're not going to have those major kinds of hits all that often,'' said Ben Hardcastle, spokesman for the state regents. ``Most of the time, we have employees who are not maxed out.''