Pay to county employees scrutinized

Policy of paying employees for unused vacation, sick leave likely to be reviewed

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Scheduling vacations wasn't a priority when Sonya Langsdorf was hired in 2008 by Clark County District Court judges to be a court commissioner.

"I was just concentrating on trying to do a good job and make a name for myself," recalled Langsdorf. Court commissioners, who earn less money than judges but have nearly all of the same powers, have their own dockets and serve as a back-up for judges.

"You have speedy-trial issues … you can't just leave your work on your desk and come back to it," she said. "Somebody has got to it."

So she didn't take many vacation days.

Then Langsdorf was elected to replace a retiring judge. She took office in January 2011, and elected county officials are exempt from the county's vacation policy. So per county policy Langsdorf was paid for her unused vacation hours that she'd accrued over 15 years, 13 of which were spent as a deputy prosecuting attorney.

The $26,143 payout for 382 hours boosted Langsdorf to among the top 20 highest-paid public employees in 2011, as ranked in The Columbian's fourth annual survey (see chart and accompanying story).

The payout also highlights an area where the approximately 1,600 people who work for Clark County government -- the fourth-largest employer in the county, behind PeaceHealth Southwest, Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools -- have an advantage. A new county study found that most county leave policies are comparable to other public and private employers, but there are exceptions -- including the fact county employees may accrue and bank more vacation and sick leave.

Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik, a former senior deputy prosecutor, joined Langsdorf in the top 20 last year. His payout when he took office in January 2011 was approximately $17,000 for unused sick leave and unused vacation hours; his total compensation includes an annual $600 car allowance.

Before voters elected him to lead the office, Golik worked in the major crimes unit where he handled Class A felonies.

A county employee since 2000, one year Golik took a two-week vacation. But his other breaks were shorter.

"I just always felt very invested in the cases," Golik said. "You don't hand these off to someone else. You want to see these through. You want to get the best result. Plus, I've always really liked my job. It's not like it's a daily grind."

Generous leave

On top of accrued vacation, county employees get 10 paid holidays (Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Memorial Day, etc.) three paid personal days and 12 sick days a year. Employees who go a year without taking a sick day get a bonus sick day the following year.

A study on direct workforce costs was conducted as part of the county's reconfiguration efforts to ensure a balanced budget, when expenses are rising faster than revenues at a rate of about 2 percent a year. While the Board of Clark County Commissioners has yet to hear a presentation on detailed findings, it received the highlights during a June update.

While the county routinely surveys similarly sized counties to compare wages, this study included jobs in the private sector. Clark County Human Resources Director Francine Reis told commissioners that the county collected its own data and bought a compensation survey produced by Milliman, a Seattle consulting firm. The Milliman survey included information from 13 public agencies and 68 private companies in the Portland-Vancouver area.

Clark County wages were comparable -- defined as being within plus or minus 8 percent -- to those in the private sector, where comparisons could be found, according to the summary. The private sector has the edge in additional pay for executives. When it comes to health care expenses, county employees pay less for family coverage than the market average, but employee contributions for single coverage are comparable.

As for paid leave, private businesses have lower caps on how much vacation and sick leave an employee can accrue, according to the study, and the county's policy of allowing employees to have three personal days a year exceeds the market average by two days. The three personal days built up over years when wages were frozen or minimal.

Payouts vary

County policy allows employees to store up to two times their annual vacation accrual; vacation days are based on number of years with the county. When employees leave the county, they are paid in full for their unused vacation hours.

A review of the 20 most recent people to leave county employment shows a range of vacation payouts, from $536 to nearly $27,000.

After 2008, the county did, for the most part, end a vacation buy-back policy that had been popular with employees. Twice a year, employees could sell back vacation days. The program cost $815,000 in 2008, said Budget Director Jim Dickman. Now the buy-back program remains available only to members of the Clark County Sheriff's Deputies Guild, which has the option written into their contract.

Dickman said the county spent $664,000 in 2011 on unused vacation and sick leave payouts.

Reis said one option for commissioners as they prepare for 2013-14 budget discussions will be ending the policy of paying for unused sick leave. Unlike vacation days, which are an earned benefit, Reis said sick days are a bank of time available should the employee need it. The current unused sick leave payout plan allows employees who have been with the county at least 10 years to cash out a portion of their sick leave. There's no payout for the first 299 hours. Hours above 300 are paid according to a formula capped at 1,200 hours.

An employee with 1,200 hours of unused sick time, for example, would be paid for 450 hours.

More private companies, and an increasing number of public agencies, use a "paid time off" bank instead of splitting vacation, sick leave and personal days, the study summary noted.

Elizabeth Gotelli, director of human resources for the city of Vancouver, said last year the city moved to a PTO bank for nonunion and management employees. Caps depend on years of service but go up to 632 hours -- equivalent to 79 eight-hour days -- for employees who have been with the city at least 21 years.

For union employees, vacation accrual caps vary, Gotelli said. The city pays employees for unused vacation time when they leave the city, but not unused sick leave. She said there's an exception for a small group of employees hired prior to 1980; they are paid for a portion of unused sick time.

According to the study summary, the survey results suggest that county commissioners should revise paid leave policies, including considering switching to a PTO bank.

"Research on PTO shows it is favorably perceived by employees because it provides the employee with more flexibility in how paid leave is taken."

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.