The Massachusetts Port Authority doled out $1.2 million dollars to retiring employees last year thanks to a little-known benefit that pays some departing employees for every day of unused sick time accumulated during their career.
The benefit, experts say, is almost unheard of in the private sector. Not only do Massport employees enjoy the benefit, but almost all state workers enjoy a scaled-down version of it. The benefit is supposed to encourage workers to call in sick only when necessary.
"This is very sweet indeed," said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "We'd all like to have it."
Massport scaled back its sick-time buyback benefit in 2007, but employees treat all their unused sick time accumulated until then under their old policy of paying for all unused sick days.
Massport employees are given 15 sick days a year, allowing some long-time workers to stock up enough unused sick time to score huge buyback bonuses upon retirement. Last year one worker alone got paid $169,000. Others were paid $102,305 and $99,859.
"It's a huge benefit and those numbers show just how excessive that benefit is. Presumably that level of payout is equal to a year's salary, or close to that," Widmer said. "They earned a good compensation, they've had vacation. They had sick days and now they get this final deal. It's not justified."
Justified or not, we are going to be paying for this benefit for years to come even though Massport scaled back the benefit thee years ago. If all that unused sick time accumulated until then were paid out now, it would cost $14 million dollars.
The biggest payout of all would go to Massport CEO Thomas Kinton. He began working at Massport in 1976, and has accumulated so much sick time since then that, if he retired now, he would be paid $455,800 for unused sick time.
Massport reduced its sick-time buyback benefit in 2007 to give its employees the same benefit as state workers, who get 20 percent of their unused sick time. Last fiscal year, paying state workers for their unused sick time cost taxpayers $6.3 million.
"They just don't have that policy in the private sector," said Fred Foulkes, director of Boston University's Human Resources Policy Institute and an expert on personnel practices in the private sector.
"The private industry has always been sort of, use it or lose it," Foulkes said. "To sort of see this as a sort of extra vacation time, it's really highly unusual and very expensive."
At one time, government employees were paid lower salaries than those in the private sector. Extra benefits like cashing in on unused sick time helped make up for less pay. But according to Foulkes, that doesn't hold true anymore.
"To these levels, it's a policy of the past. it doesn't fit the present time or the future. It's too expensive. It's not needed to recruit and retain people. It's something that doesn't fit the current situation."
The administration of Gov. Deval Patrick apparently does think its sick time benefits fit the current situation. A spokeswoman says the state has no plans to change its buyback policy. When Massport changed its policies in 2007, former Gov. Mitt Romney called for an immediate end to paying back every day of unused sick time. But Massport allowed unused sick time accrued up until then to be paid back at the old, 100 percent rate, saying it would have been illegal to take away benefits that had already accrued under the old policy.