EDITORIAL: End bargaining for paid time off

In the private sector, paid days off are a quality of life benefit. They exist to give workers some balance in their personal and professional lives, and provide the flexibility to deal with family and health emergencies without financial sacrifice.

In the public sector, paid leave does that and much, much more. For unionized government workers, paid leave is also a lucrative form of deferred compensation, a savings account that serves as a massive retirement bonus — on you, the taxpayer.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, companies across the country have cut back their employee benefits to survive. Among the most common reductions: prohibiting the accumulation of paid leave — “use it or lose it” — and limiting the payouts of unused paid leave upon employee separation. Businesses simply couldn’t afford to cut huge checks to everyone who carried over months of leave before going out the door.

In Southern Nevada, local governments can’t afford to write those big checks, either. Across the valley, governments are outspending their tax collections, balancing their budgets with reserves. But thanks to collective bargaining, governments can’t do anything about unionized employees’ paid leave rollovers and payouts to unionized employees. It’s common for longtime workers to cash out six figures worth of accrued leave upon retirement — sometimes more than a year’s base salary.

These payouts come at the expense of important public services. The 2015 Legislature can remedy the problem by enacting the fifth of the Review-Journal’s 25 recommendations to lawmakers in 25 days: prohibit public employee unions from collectively bargaining for sick and vacation pay.

State law allows local government workers to bargain for paid leave. They’re not about to give up or dial back the accrued paid leave payouts that allow workers to pay off their homes upon retirement or purchase service credits in the state’s pension system, allowing them to retire early.

Local governments have taken steps to curb paid leave for their executive, appointed and nonunion workers. The city of Las Vegas limits leave accruals for those workers to 250 hours, which cannot be cashed out upon separation. Henderson enacted similar limits as well. Meanwhile, Henderson’s total accrued sick leave liability, as of Dec. 31, is almost $25 million. Although Clark County doesn’t track its total paid leave liabilities, a spokesman said the county coughs up about $3.5 million per year in accrued sick leave to workers who quit — enough to put about 35 more police officers on the streets. The payouts are such a fiscal burden that the county leaves open the jobs of workers who separate until the costs of their paid-leave payoffs are recouped.

This kind of largess is madness. If the Legislature ends bargaining for paid leave, governments won’t have the ability to take away the accrued paid leave of unionized employees, but they can impose the kinds of limits that are common at companies — limits that would help governments achieve more sustainable personnel costs. A little pay parity with the private sector isn’t too much to ask.