Gov. Jerry Brown has maintained the state's 80-day cap on vacation… (Lezlie Sterling, Sacramento…)
When Lt. Marie Hannah retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 2010, she left with the well-wishes of her colleagues, a six-figure pension and a one-time payment so large it surprised even her: $183,683 for unused time off.
Hannah accumulated her 325 days of vacation, sick time, comp time and holiday credit over a 30-year career. Under county rules, she was paid for all of it at her final $147,600 salary.
"I've always been a person who believes in saving for a rainy day," Hannah said of her decision to skip family trips, to work when she felt under the weather and to stockpile the time off. "But I didn't expect [the check] to be this much."
Although Hannah tops the list of more than 3,900 county employees who collected termination compensation for unused time in 2010, she's not the only one who reaped a substantial amount. Sixty-four departing employees received checks in excess of $100,000, county data show. The vast majority of them, 49, worked for the Sheriff's Department.
In all, Los Angeles County paid more than $48 million to retiring employees for unused time off in 2010. About a third of that, $16 million, went to workers leaving the Sheriff's Department even though they made up only 13% of the county's retiring employees, payroll data show.
The county is not alone in allowing public sector employees to bank large amounts of time. State and local governments across the country offer workers large future payoffs in lieu of immediate benefits, especially during tough economic times.
Such provisions can also be used to reward political allies.
Gov. Jerry Brown maintained the state's 80-day cap on vacation in all but one of six union contracts he renegotiated after taking office in January. The exception was the deal for the powerful prison guards union, whose members spent nearly $2 million on his election campaign. They can now accrue unlimited vacation.
Even with the cap in place, however, managers at state agencies have granted so many exceptions that the limit holds little meaning. Last year, nearly a third of retiring state employees got paid for more than 80 days, data from the state controller show.
"There needs to be some consequence to ignoring the cap," said Kline. "Just like the general public has to adhere to speed limits and tax deadlines … public officials should have to follow the rules placed on them."
In 2010, a retiring state prison doctor cashed in more than 21/2 years, for $594,976, records show. A Forestry and Fire Protection administrator walked away with a check for $294,440. And a parole agent, who'd saved nearly three years, collected $268,990.
Most private employers place much more restrictive caps on the amount of unused vacation workers can accrue; 25 days is a common limit. Employees who exceed such caps are typically paid within a year or so of when they earned the time off.
Experts say a similar policy, if used by state and local governments, would alleviate the sudden strain that huge lump-sum payments place on already stretched public budgets.
"Agencies should pay this out at the rate it was earned," said David Kline, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Assn. "You want to have enough money to keep paying for the public safety services the people need, and when you have giant payouts like this, it affects those services."
Hannah came close to maxing out nearly every category of unused time county rules allow employees to accumulate: 60 days of comp time, 80 days of vacation and 90 days of sick time.
She also banked 105 days for working on official holidays, county records show. The county recognizes 11 official holidays each year. Hannah's lump sum payout was made in addition to her $139,600 annual pension.
Sheriff's Department spokesman Michael Parker said that his agency performs a crucial 24-hour public safety function, so it's not always possible for key employees to take time off. He also noted that six-figure payouts are the exception, not the rule.
The average payout to a departing Sheriff's Department employee was $31,816 in 2010, the data show.
Retiring firefighters, who also serve a 24-hour-per-day mission, averaged $32,698. But only four of them, three assistant chiefs and a captain, got paid more than $100,000 for unused time off last year.
Asked to explain why so many more Sheriff's Department employees got big checks, Ryan Alsop, assistant to county Chief Executive William T Fujioka, wrote in an email, "The labor agreements for these entities would have to be considered before making any comparisons."
He said he wasn't familiar enough with the contract details to explain the difference.
Steve Whitmore, another Sheriff's Department spokesman, said the deputies have taken less vacation and used fewer sick days recently in an effort to drive down overtime costs.