Sacramento, Calif. — One public employee received a $594,976 lump-sum payment from the state when he retired last year; another got $553,253.
The two — a surgeon and a dentist who provided care to prison inmates — topped the list of some 300 state employees who left or retired from their state jobs in 2010 and collected six-figure payments for unused vacation and other paid time off accumulated during their careers, according to records obtained from the state controller’s office.
The records reflect a widespread failure by the state to control the amount of paid time off that employees amass. State policy caps the number of vacation hours an employee is allowed to bank at 640 hours — or 16 weeks — and sometimes higher for public safety workers. But many agencies do not enforce the limits.
Controller’s data shows that in 2010, California paid $293 million in lump-sum payments to 20,048 state workers who retired or left. But while some checks were as low as 41 cents, others were for hundreds of thousands of dollars — reflecting months upon months, or in some cases years, of banked leave.
In 2010, the top 100 people to collect six-figure payments accounted for nearly $20 million alone. Among them were a highway patrol sergeant in Los Angeles County who collected $208,772, a parole agent in Santa Clara County who got $268,990, and a prisons psychiatrist in Solano County who received $262,535.
Critics say the numbers should be a wake up call for state leaders who need to do a better job managing state employee work hours.
“It is shocking but not surprising,” said David Kline , a vice president at the California Taxpayers Association . “We’ve seen so many examples of bad management decisions that cost state taxpayers millions of dollars. ... In the private sector, business owners set standards as far as how much vacation time an employee can accrue and they stick to those standards.”
Elizabeth Ashford, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said the Democratic administration is concerned.
“The last administration likely exacerbated this situation with its furlough program. Once the furlough program winds down, we hope that employees will be able to use their vacation time and prevent additional growth in leave balances,” she said.
Jason Sisney, director of state finance at the Legislative Analyst Office, said the banked time has grown in recent years. According to the state auditor’s office, workers had $1.9 billion worth of paid leave banked in 2006-07. Today, it’s a $3.5 billion liability.
State managers face “difficult decisions in managing leave time,” because service levels could fall and overtime could rise if workers were to use all their paid time off, Sisney said.
However, he added, “when workers retire and cash out, departments generally have to manage these cash-out costs within their existing ... sometimes very stretched budgets.”
Many of the workers who received the largest payouts are employed in 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operations, such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Employees on the list said they often worked through vacations when emergencies or staffing shortages forced them to cancel scheduled time off. And they noted that because the money comes in one lump sum, it is heavily taxed.
“The way the system is set up, particularly for those in top level management ... is that over the course of time, a lot of vacation builds up,” said Robert Meyers, who was a doctor in the state prison system for 22 years and retired as chief medical officer of the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. His payout, before taxes, was $412,666 — equivalent to what he would typically earn in about a year-and-a-half.
Meyers said he asked corrections department superiors if he could burn the time off by taking some long vacations toward the end of his career, but was turned down because there was no one to fill his shoes. “For me to take that much time was not doable,” he said. “There’s no backup position if you’re running a program.”