California Prison Guards Can Bank Unlimited Vacation Time

Last year we told you about the massive vacation balances state workers have accrued over the years, often in violation of rules designed to cap the amount of unused vacation any given employee could collect.

But according to a Legislative Analyst's Office report [PDF] elaborated upon in a Los Angeles Times article earlier this week, the state has apparently come up with a novel way to deal with the problem: Get rid of those limits altogether. Buried deep within the labor contract recently approved by Gov. Jerry Brown for the state prison guards' union is a provision that essentially lifts the cap on the amount of vacation those workers are allowed to accrue throughout their careers.

Typically, state workers are allowed to bank 80 days worth of unused vacation, which can be cashed out when they leave state service. That vacation is cashed out at a worker's rate of pay when they retire, so leave banked earlier in a state worker's career effectively becomes more valuable over time.

Our investigation last year showed that over a three-year period from 2006 to 2009, retiring state workers cashed out nearly a half billon dollars in unused vacation. At least $100 million of that, and probably much more, was for vacation in excess of the state's 80-day cap.

The corrections liability is even higher. As the Times pointed out, the average corrections worker has accumulated about 19 weeks of unused leave, creating a cash liability of more than $600 million that is virtually guaranteed to grow.

A Brown spokeswoman told the Times that furloughs mandated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made it infeasible to enforce vacation caps among corrections officers, many of which are in positions that require around-the-clock staffing.

Some workers in critical positions, including corrections officers, were allowed to bank their furlough days as well, though they were instructed to burn through those before tapping into their vacation stores. As a result, the amount of banked vacation on the books grew substantially under the furlough program.

Hints of the impact of furloughs on banked leave were appearing as early as 2009, when a state Senate investigation found that corrections workers were banking five times more vacation than usual since furloughs began.

Reports released in late 2009 and early 2010 also suggested that employees of the state's Franchise Tax Board and unemployment offices were also banking vacation at much higher rates when furloughs began.

Even before furloughs hit full swing, more than 14,000 state workers had exceeded their banked vacation caps. That number jumped to 19,000 by the end of 2009.

The Times story pointed out several more interesting facts about corrections workers, many of whom have taken six-figure payouts upon their retirement from state service:

More than 3,500 corrections officer union members had more than 80 days of unused vacation and annual leave at the end of 2010, said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the state controller's office.

Even with the cap in place, it was not enforced, said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Last year, corrections led all state departments in end-of-career payments for unused vacation and sick time, totaling $111 million, according to state payroll data.

In all, 80 corrections union members got payouts exceeding $100,000 when they left state service in 2010. In most cases, those payments were well beyond the employee's annual salary.

The average payout for corrections employees taking lump sums was $24,994. But one $97,000-a-year parole agent received a $268,990 payment for unused time off, the controller's records show. A $119,000-a-year prison administrator took away $243,308. A $70,000-a-year parole agent got $176,493.