Baton Rouge’s generous sick leave policies are a sticking point in union negotiations

How much sick leave time do you get at your job? A week every year? A few days? How about an entire year and a half?

Baton Rouge city-parish employees currently get to keep all of the sick leave time they accrue through their entire career. It doesn’t expire at the end of each year. And they get a lot of sick leave time. Enough so that your average employee can retire more than a year early.

The mayor’s office is now trying to cap that sick time, as part of an overall revamp of its compensation system that essentially cuts back on employees’ long-term benefits in exchange for giving them raises and increasing up-front opportunities to raise their salaries. But the sick leave issue has been one of the sticking points in negotiations with union representatives, who say employees were counting on that perk when they agreed to start working for the city.

“Now it seems the administration wants to take that away, but they don’t want to give the wages that allow people to survive without being in poverty,” said LaTanja Silvester, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 21, which represents public works and other employees in Baton Rouge. “(Employees are asking) how can you take something that was part of my contract when I signed on?”

The administration says that sick leave accrual was never part of employees’ contracts, and that it’s now become typical for city-parish employees to use the sick leave in a way that was never intended.

“It’s for people that got sick to still be able to get paid,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer for the mayor’s office. “Now it’s turned into a retirement benefit, and a severance benefit that was never envisioned.”

The result is that the city-parish and its retirement system now have more than $93 million worth of liability for sick leave that’s been banked up over the years — 2.8 million hours.

Employees start off by getting 12 days per year of sick leave, and by the time they reach 15 years of service, they get 24 days of annual sick leave, in addition to 24 days of vacation.

“We have employees that take off every Friday,” Daniel said.

By the time they retire, the average non-public-safety employee turns in about a year’s worth of sick leave for early retirement. The average for police is about a year and a half, and the average for firefighters is 1.75 years, said Linda Hunt, assistant finance director. If you quit or get fired you lose your sick leave, but you keep it if you retire.

The administration’s proposal would cap the sick leave, even for current employees. Over the next four years, the city-parish would gradually reduce the amount of sick leave employees have on the books, so that they each accrue 12 days per year. They wouldn’t lose any leave they already have, but they wouldn’t be able to accrue any more sick leave until they fall under the 12-day maximum.

New employees, hired after the changes go into effect, would only get 12 days per year of sick leave and it would not roll over to the next year. In addition, they would not be allowed to use sick leave toward their retirement. Daniel says the city-parish will have a short-term disability policy in place for employees who are sick for extended periods of time.

The sick leave cap is part of a broader proposal the administration is working on to restructure employee pay and benefits. Their proposal includes some perks for employees, like giving everyone a 2 percent raise or $500, whichever is greater, and stretching out the pay scale so that employees who are at the top can still have opportunities to increase their salaries. But the administration has said to afford those changes, they need to cut back in other areas, like by capping sick leave, and by changing overtime policies that allowed employees to call in sick or take vacation for part of the week and then earn overtime if they worked through the weekend.

Overall, the administration says the goal is to shift the city-parish’s compensation from a system where most of what employees earn comes in the form of benefits, to one that pays them more up-front in salary.

The current system, where employees get about half of their compensation after they retire, is outdated and makes it hard for the city-parish to offer competitive salaries and attract new hires, the administration says.

“Our ability to hire and retain people is compromised and is gong to get worse,” Daniel said.

But the administration isn’t proposing to implement the changes in the 2015 budget, which is currently being considered by the Metro Council. They’re still working on negotiating with the unions.

SEIU, however, is pushing for raises — beyond the 2 percent — to be added to the budget now. Silvester said she wants to see raises in line with the 6 percent recommended by a consultant the city-parish hired to analyze its compensation system.

Nearly 15 percent of city-parish employees earn less than $10 per hour.

“Employees want to see something now,” Silvester said. “Employees want to be able to cover their energy bills and cover all of the bills that they have today, now. We can definitely negotiate around the terms that the city-parish wants to present, but as it stands now, employees deserve raises without taking their benefit packages away from them.”

Most employees currently do receive either 3 percent merit raises each year, or a longevity increase, typically 1 percent each year, if they’ve been with the city-parish for 10 years. SEIU, however, does not consider those increases raises — they say they’re just part of the pay plan and aren’t enough.

The union does have support from at least some council members, who have agreed that they want to see employees get significant raises as soon as possible. John Delgado has said he’ll push for raises in the 2015 budget.

And when the administration’s plan was first presented, some council members raised concerns about the sick leave and other perks that would be reduced under the new proposal.

“All those things are the kind of things that help them swallow the bitter pill of not being paid adequately for their work,” said council member Chauna Banks-Daniel.