Taxpayers and some elected officials have long complained about the amount of time off granted to Luzerne County government employees, with many receiving 17 or 18 sick days annually on top of generous vacation and paid holiday allotments.
But the county administration is slowly making headway whittling down the number of sick days provided to newer employees, according to a Times Leader review of county collective bargaining agreements.
Two recent binding arbitration awards reduced the annual sick day allotment to 10 for employees hired after Jan. 1 in the Court-Related Unit and Court-Appointed Support Staff unions.
This means new employees in eight of the county’s 10 unions now receive 10 sick days annually. The others: Detectives, Assistant District Attorneys/Public Defenders, Residual Unit, Children and Youth, Aging and Mental Health.
County Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik said the goal is to move all new employees to 10 sick days and gradually convert the workforce as employees who leave or retire are replaced.
“We know we can’t get everything we want all at once, but through attrition, we will get there,” Parsnik said.
The only remaining holdouts for any transition to fewer sick days for new employees are the unions representing prison workers and probation/domestic relations support officers.
The prison contract, which provides the maximum 18 sick days for all covered workers, runs through 2018.
The county is awaiting a binding arbitration decision on the Court-Appointed Professional contract representing probation/domestic relations support officers, which expired the end of 2014. All workers in this union receive 17 sick days annually.
Two other groups receive the maximum 18 sick days annually: detectives hired before 2012 and non-union employees hired before Aug. 1, 2005.
The 300 non-union employees adhere to benefits in a personnel policy adopted by prior county commissioners. Those hired after Aug. 1, 2005, are capped at 12 annual sick days.
The county’s progress converting to sick leave allowances that “more closely approach regional and national norms” was highlighted in a five-year financial recovery plan released last October.
Such “incremental changes” will have “small but positive effects for the county over time,” said Harrisburg-based Public Financial Management, which completed the plan.
Around 1,090, or 79 percent, of county workers are covered by the union contracts, the plan said.
Saving sick days
With one exception, county workers can store up as many unused sick days as they want from year to year.
Prison workers are the only deviation, with a cap of 125 sick days that may be kept in reserve.
The county limits the number of unused days employees can cash in for payment when they leave, although the specifics vary from group to group.
The most common provision allows departing workers to be paid for up to 60 unused sick days upon departure, although some unions allow the buyout of 70, 75 and, in the case of the prison, 125 days.
The cash payments they receive per day range from $35 to $70 or are based on percentages of their current pay rates.
Parsnik said county workers often bank their sick days because they want a cushion they can fall back on if they become seriously ill. The county does not provide short- or long-term disability, he said.
Unionized prison workers have the added benefit of selling back unused sick days annually, at their current pay rates, if they have built up a 125-day reserve.
Three human service departments also provided this controversial option to cash in unused sick time annually, but it ended this year under their collective bargaining agreements.
All county employees, unionized or not, receive 12 paid holidays annually.
Public Financial’s recovery plan advised the county to negotiate the elimination of one holiday, particularly with unionized workers at the prison and 911 center that must remain open while other county offices shut down.
The county spent $878,000 on holiday pay in 2013, the vast majority at the prison and 911, Public Financial said.
State employees receive 11 holidays annually, and the national average is eight holidays, its report said.
“A reduction in the number of holidays should also increase productivity,” it said.
Parsnik said county officials have not yet broached the elimination of a holiday in union negotiations because they have focused on reducing sick days and other higher priority changes, including moving all employees to higher health insurance contributions and converting remaining longevity bonuses to flat amounts instead of percentages.
“Maybe we will negotiate one less holiday, but for what we’d save, we’d have to see what we would have to give up,” Parsnik said.
Most county workers receive five personal days annually.
Unionized assistant district attorneys/public defenders receive the lowest number of personal days — four — while workers in the prison union receive the most — six.
The number of vacation days ranges from five or seven for newer workers and typically caps out between 27.5 and 30 days, although four unions have a maximum of 25.
The long-term goal is to start limiting newer employees to a maximum of 20 vacation days, but that conversion likely will take years, Parsnik said.
The Court-Related contract is the only one that limits vacation days at 20 for workers hired after Jan. 1, 2003.
Unionized prison workers are the only county employees with no vacation day limit. These employees receive 28 days after 15 years of service and continue earning an additional half day of vacation time each year after hitting 20 years of service.