Council is not without options

The Medford City Council may have few options in paying departing employees for accrued vacation and overtime, but that's not to say it has no options at all.

Councilors in June approved nearly $1 million in payments to employees who had accrued vacation and overtime. Much of the total went to fire and police employees.

City officials explained to the council that union contracts and federal employment law require the payments when employees choose to bank vacation and compensatory time off rather than take it as paid leave while they are still employed by the city. When an employee retires, the city must pay the retiree for those accrued hours.

The largest share of the June payout was $400,000 to the Fire Department. The Police Department accounted for $330,000, the second-largest amount.

Tight staffing in recent years has resulted in employees working more overtime and not taking vacation. Certainly employees are entitled to be paid for the hours they work.

An employee who elects not to take vacation in the year it is awarded and carry it over should be allowed to take that paid time off. But what can happen instead is that employees later get paid for that time in cash rather that taking the time off. In essence, they receive extra pay.

That is a benefit not available to most private-sector workers. The general rule in most workplaces is that vacation time must be taken in the year it is earned and cannot be carried forward.

Union contracts with bargaining units of city employees allow time off to be accrued up to a cap amount, which varies from contract to contract.

Exempt employees — supervisors, for instance — do not have union contracts, but also may accrue time off.

Some time off — "comp" time in lieu of overtime pay — is a right of public-sector employees under amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The city does not have the option of altering that benefit.

The city could, however, change its policy to require vacation time to be taken in the year it is earned, or, if carried forward, require employees to take it as time off, not save it for retirement.

Union contracts can be changed as well, at the bargaining table. That wouldn't be popular with employees, but it would be with the public.

No one begrudges hard-working public employees fair compensation. But the ability to bank vacation time and cash out on retirement is another example of a perk that is available to public employees but not to their counterparts in the private sector.

City councilors could address that if they chose to do so.

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