May 07--Following a contentious and at times emotional two-hour, 15-minute public hearing on Tuesday, the Hutchinson City Council voted 3-1 to apply an unpopular new sick leave policy to the city's firefighters.
The new policy, which will be applied retroactively to all firefighters hired since July 1, 1993, will base the amount of unused sick leave the city buys back upon the firefighter's retirement or death on the rate at which he utilized that sick leave during his career.
Mayor Cindy Proett cast the dissenting vote after saying she was not sure the city could retroactively implement a new policy if it doesn't have solid records on the rate firefighters have utilized sick leave in the past.
Council members Jon Daveline, Jade Piros de Carvalho and Nancy Soldner voted in favor of the new policy. Council member Bob Bush, who cast the only vote against the policy when the issue came up last month with the Service Employees International Union contract, was absent because his son was undergoing a medical procedure.
City Human Resources Director Tom Sanders and David Kight, an attorney who represented the city in negotiations with the International Association of Firefighters Local 179, offered a number of reasons for the new policy.
One was cost: Over the previous five years, the city had paid a total of $82,284 to buy back unused sick leave from retiring fighters. The amounts ranged from as little as $4,000 in 2012 to as much as $34,000 in 2011. The average was $16,456 a year.
However, Kight said, that was only part of the cost because the city had to pay other firefighters overtime to replace those who were sick and that cost not only wages but also higher pension contributions based those wages.
Kight said the city also wanted the new policy to discourage abuse of sick leave by those who have accumulated the maximum number of hours that can be bought back. Some firefighters, he said, had a sick leave utilization rate of over 90 percent and many had a rate over 50 percent.
"This has so much less to do with money than changing the culture of the high utilization rate (of sick leave)," Piros de Carvalho said.
Kight said the city also wanted to realign the sick leave policy from what was viewed as a supplemental retirement benefit to its intended purpose of guaranteeing income when an employee is legitimately ill or injured.
"No one is taking any sick leave away," Kight said. "Their sick leave remains the same. They will not lose one hour, one day of sick leave. They will keep all the sick leave they have banked. The issue is how much you will pay out on retirement and if (the buy-back) is offered to other people."
Under their old contract, which expired last Dec. 31, firefighters could accumulate up to 360 hours of unused sick leave that the city would buy back when they took full retirement or retirement based on disability. It also would be paid to their next of kin if they died.
On top of that, they could earn an additional 36 hours for each year of perfect attendance, up to 10 years, for a total of 720 hours that would be bought back.
The city's new policy eliminates the perfect attendance component but increases the base number of hours that could be bought back to 544. However, instead of buying back 100 percent of those hours, the city would buy back a maximum of 33 percent of the hours if the firefighter had used less than 35 percent of his sick time during his entire career. At that rate, a firefighter would have to accumulate more than 1,600 hours of unused sick leave to be paid for 544 hours upon retirement.
For those with higher utilization rates, the city would buy back less sick leave: 20 percent for those who used 35 to 39.9 percent of their sick leave; 10 percent for those who used 40 to 44.9 percent of their sick leave; and no buy-back for those who used 45 percent or more of their sick leave.
The city's new policy also makes any firefighters with at least five years of service eligible for the buy-back, regardless of whether they have enough points to qualify for full retirement.