Bill would end 'boat checks' for banked sick time

| 14 Mar 2012 | 03:01

    By Angela Delli Santi TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey's Republican governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature have long agreed it's time to stop large end-of-career payouts to government employees for unused sick days, but there's been less agreement on how to legislate an end to the payouts Gov. Chris Christie mockingly calls “boat checks." An Assembly committee advanced the latest proposal on March 8. The measure would end payouts that can reach six figures from now on, but would allow employees to keep what they've lawfully accrued to date. “We will finally end the outrageously large cash payments to public workers that don't exist in the private sector and have burdened taxpayers for far too long," said Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, a Voorhees Democrat who is sponsoring a two-bill package to cover union and non-union employees. “We'll be implementing a reasonable and responsible system that in the long run benefits everyone by putting an end to these unacceptable cash payouts." The cash-outs to retiring school administrators, police and firefighters, and other public-sector workers, is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Christie has estimated the tab at $825 million for accumulated sick leave payments collectively owed to workers around the state. He refers to the payouts as “boat checks" because he says they are sometimes so large that retirees could finance a boat purchase. Christie, who has been calling for legislation that ends the payouts entirely for newly hired workers, vetoed a bill capping the payouts at $15,000. Legislative sponsors then knocked the cap down to $7,500, but the governor threatened to veto that as well, so it didn't advance. Senate President Steve Sweeney last month offered up a measure that halts payouts for unused sick time going forward. His bill allows employees to roll over the time and use it for illnesses, but not cash it out once they leave. It hasn't yet had a legislative hearing. In testifying on behalf of her bill, Lampitt ticked off what many consider to be outrageous payouts that need to end: A former police chief in Harrison left office with a check for $305,000; the impoverished city of Camden paid $2.3 million to 20 retiring employees over four years ending in 2008; Counties, towns, colleges and school boards are straining under the weight of large payouts to longtime employees. One Assembly bill entirely eliminates the cash value of unused sick time for non-union employees such as administrators. The other allows workers to bank up to $7,500 in sick time that could be credited toward their health insurance payments in retirement if the provision is negotiated as part of their union contracts. The accrued time would have no cash value, per Christie's insistence. The bills also limit vacation carry-forward to one year. Another sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Al Coutinho of Newark, said the legislation is a win for taxpayers. “The so-called `boat check' will be gone, and local governments will have the flexibility they need to negotiate what works best for their community," he said. Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, a Freehold Republican who voted “no" on both bills, said Christie has made it clear he would veto any bills containing payouts. But, Assemblywoman Linda Stender, a Scotch Plains Democrat who voted “yes," said the bills preserve collective bargaining while eliminating a cash value to accumulated sick time. The bills advanced in a 3-2 party-line vote.