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Houston owes workers a half-billion thanks to bonus sick days

By   /   April 23, 2014  /   No Comments

Some deals are so good they can only be achieved when the union is sitting on both sides of the table.

Some deals are so good they can only be achieved when the union is sitting on both sides of the table.

By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org

HOUSTON – Taxpayers owe Houston public employees nearly a half-billion dollars for unused time off.

That’s roughly the amount the employees of Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have racked up, combined.

Houston’s outsized liability for leave time is due in large part to the city’s extraordinary sick day policy. The bottom line: If you show up for work almost every day, you don’t have to show up for work every day, and you collect double time for the work you don’t do.

That is, the city rewards employees for not taking time off by giving them bonus sick days to cash in, plus a few bonus personal days, that they can use to actually take time off.

Houston employees are allowed to pile up six months’ worth of “compensatory sick leave,” which is paid out on retirement or termination at the wage the employee is then earning, according to the city’s comprehensive annual financial report, or CAFR.

Even though employees just get eight days of sick leave a year, the city makes it easy to rack up six months’ worth with its incentives. For every hour of sick leave an employee doesn’t use, the city will throw in a matching hour that can be cashed out, up to 65 hours per year.

With sick days effectively worth double pay, employees have a strong incentive to show up for work every day. But that’s not much fun, so the city offers an extra perk: if you use two or fewer days of sick leave per year, the city will throw in up to three personal days off the next year.

So workers can still stay home playing XBox three days a year, but if they would just goof off a little more, taxpayers would save a bundle. If every city employee took eight “mental health days” a year, taxpayers would save almost three and a half weeks’ worth of bonus pay for each one.

The three personal days can’t be cashed in like vacation days, which are capped at 18 weeks for veterans and nine weeks for people hired since Jan. 1, 2000.

Unlike most employers, the City of Houston also allows many workers to cash in comp time rather than use it. This way, salaried employees can earn overtime, too. According to the city’s CAFR, Houston does limit the accrual of comp time, although it doesn’t specify how much.

Thanks to these generous policies, Houston had built up a liability of $469,138,000 for compensated absences as of its most recent annual financial statements.

By comparison, Austin owed $150,930,000, Dallas owed $134,620,000, and San Antonio owed $210,785,000.

Houston owes the most by far, even if you weigh the comparison by employee count (Austin: 12,088, Dallas: 12,183, Houston: 21,872, San Antonio: 10,445) or population (Austin: 841,649, Dallas: 1,207,420, Houston: 2,160,821, San Antonio: 1,383,194).

Contact Jon Cassidy at jon@watchdog.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion

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Jon Cassidy is the Texas bureau chief for Watchdog.org. He also writes a weekly column on politics for The American Spectator. He was formerly a reporter and editor for The Orange County Register in California and a reporter at The Hill in Washington, D.C. His work has been published by Fox News, Reason, The Federalist, Human Events, and other publications. He is a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and a graduate of the University of Southern California. He and his wife Michelle live just outside Houston with their two children.

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