Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The problem with sick pay

The Democrats have decided that they aren't about to do anything about the state's abnormally generous policy regarding employee sick pay - even for elected officials. Employees are permitted to accumulate unused sick pay and then use it (at current not past levels of pay) to pay for post-employment health care. There are two problems. One is the sense that salaried high policy and managerial employees don't use "sick pay" even when they are sick. The other is that this is a benefit that is generally unavailable in the private sector.

Apologists for the policy see it as a way to compensate public employees for lower salaries. One problem with that is that not all public employees are paid less than comparable employees in the private sector. The public payroll is flatter than private payrolls. The less that a job pays the more likely it is to pay the same as (or even more than) a comparable private sector job.

But even were this not the case, there is a problem. All of these things that are supposed to "compensate" public employees for "low pay" and are said to be necessary to attract good people (e.g. rich health plans, fat pensions, accumulated sick pay) share one thing in common. They are not particularly visible. Indeed, benefits like pension and accumulated sick pay are generally off the books. They are a promise to pay tomorrow that no one notices. This is particularly so with the accumulated sick pay benefits. Most retired state employees with whom I have spoken did not even know they had it until it was time to collect. So much for the idea that it was a vital part of attracting them to state employment in the first place.

If the state needs to pay more to attract good judges or chemists, then it should pay more. That is the transparent and above board way to go about it. Rewarding public employees with benefits for which the government need not account and the magnitude of which is unclear is bad policy. It hides the ball. That's why it's done.

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