, Salem, MA

November 21, 2012

Our view: Good deal struck on sick leave buyback

The Salem News

---- — Here’s hoping Salem’s other municipal unions are paying attention to the recent deal between the city and its firefighters.

The three-year contract agreed to last week includes a cumulative 6 percent raise for the city’s 85 firefighters, a modest but fair bump in troubled financial times.

There’s good news for taxpayers, too. The deal makes significant changes to the sick leave buyback policy, which will save the city and its citizens tens of thousands of dollars in future payouts.

Sick leave buyback, which pays employees for unused sick time when they leave or retire, has been a part of union contracts for decades and in recent years has become a substantial drain on the city budget.

Workers can be paid for as many as 90 unused sick days upon retirement under the current agreement. What’s more, retiring workers get their buyback at their current pay rate, even if most of it was earned at lower-level jobs. For example, a retiring police captain would be paid at a captain’s rate for sick days accrued over an entire career, even if he or she was a patrolman for most of that time.

So far this fiscal year, Salem has paid more than $700,000 to retiring workers for unused sick days. In September, the City Council had to approve a $104,000 budget transfer to pay for sick leave buyback for just four employees — three school staffers and one employee from the city clerk’s office.

No one is blaming union workers for taking advantage of a deal that private employees would love to have themselves. And as we’ve noted in this space before, many union workers have factored their sick-leave payouts into their retirement planning, so the system can’t be simply slashed or eliminated. It does, however, need to change.

That’s why the deal between the city and the firefighters union gives us hope. There’s something for both sides.

Under the agreement with the firefighters union, new firefighters will not get sick leave buyback when they retire, and new hires who use less than half of their annual sick time can get paid up to two days a year at a capped rate. The arrangement lets the city make smaller annual and end-of-service payments.

“This will provide substantial savings and enable us to reduce these very expensive costs,” Mayor Kim Driscoll said last week.

Salem Firefighters Union President Richard Thomas called the deal “a good compromise.”

“We think it’s a fair deal for our members and the city with the economic climate out there,” Thomas told reporter Tom Dalton.

We agree. It’s an agreement that should satisfy the union, the city and, most importantly, the taxpayers.