Guards escort an inmate at a facility in Corcoran, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — Deep in the 200-page contract that Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved for state prison guards is a provision that could generate a cash windfall to the officers when they retire.
The guards, who are among Brown's largest political benefactors, would be able to save an unlimited number of vacation days under their new deal. When they leave state service, those days could be exchanged for cash at their final pay rate, which would probably be higher than when they earned the time off.
The governor is extending this benefit only to members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., a union that spent nearly $2 million to help him win election last year.
Removing the decades-old limit on accrued vacation — now 80 days for most state employees — would be a "huge liability" for taxpayers, said Nick Schroeder of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. Schroeder said he had not determined the cost of lifting the cap, but his analysis of the deal showed the average corrections union member has accumulated nearly 19 weeks of leave time to date. All of that time off has "a current cash value of over $600 million," he said.
The deal also would give the members 18 more days off over the life of the two-year contract, according to Schroeder, bringing the typical prison guard's time off to more than eight weeks in the first year.
Also in the proposed contract is a change in a provision that encouraged corrections officers to remain physically fit. In the past, they could get up to $130 extra each month if they met certain fitness standards. In the new contract, they would be eligible for the money if they simply go to the doctor for an annual physical, Schroeder said.
The contract still must be approved by the Legislature, which is dominated by Brown's fellow Democrats, and ratified by union members. After feuding bitterly with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the union has been working without a formal contract since 2006. Brown, who would need the organization's support for a proposed ballot measure to renew billions of dollars in expiring taxes, moved quickly to forge a deal with the roughly 30,000-member organization.
Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said the vacation cap had to be removed because work furloughs imposed by Schwarzenegger added so many days to corrections officers' time off that they "can't avoid exceeding the vacation cap."
Many corrections officers worked days when other state employees stayed home on furlough, because prisons are a 24-hour operation. Their unpaid days off — about 36 per employee last year — have been added to the pool of vacation and sick time they can take in the future.
Critics of the new contract say that removing the cap on vacation days will benefit many older union members who are nearing retirement and who have large amounts of saved vacation.
"Jerry Brown has totally caved to these guys," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
More than 3,500 corrections officer union members had more than 80 days of unused vacation and annual leave at the end of 2010, said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the state controller's office.
Even with the cap in place, it was not enforced, said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Last year, corrections led all state departments in end-of-career payments for unused vacation and sick time, totaling $111 million, according to state payroll data.
In all, 80 corrections union members got payouts exceeding $100,000 when they left state service in 2010. In most cases, those payments were well beyond the employee's annual salary.
The average payout for corrections employees taking lump sums was $24,994. But one $97,000-a-year parole agent received a $268,990 payment for unused time off, the controller's records show. A $119,000-a-year prison administrator took away $243,308. A $70,000-a-year parole agent got $176,493.
The only state employee union whose members are now allowed to exceed the 80-day limit is the California Assn. of Highway Patrolman, who can save up to 101 days of time off, according to Department of Personnel Administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley.
The average Highway Patrol officer who cashed out unused time off last year received $33,284, records show. But the Highway Patrol has fewer employees, which means the department came in a distant second in overall spending for unused time, paying departing employees a total of $29 million.
Brown's proposed budget assumed that the state could save $515 million in new deals struck with the six employee unions that have contracts pending. But the proposed agreements would fall short by $306 million, according to Schroeder.