What a way to go

Talk about a golden parachute. Or, to be more precise, many golden parachutes.

Medford City Council members would have preferred to hand out something a little less precious than the nearly $1 million in accrued vacation and overtime they approved for retirees and other former employees last week.

To be fair, they had no choice in the matter; the employees were entitled to the payments under union contracts. But the sheer size of the payout amount — and the extremely generous contract terms that allow employees to bank the extra pay to pad their departures — ought to prompt some serious negotiation when those contracts come up for renewal.

Of the $920,000 total payout, nearly half — $400,000 — went to Fire Department retirees. The Police Department accounted for $330,000, the second-largest amount.

Employees are entitled to receive extra pay when they work overtime, which is appropriate and in line with what most full-time workers receive. But city employees may choose to bank that overtime rather than take it in their paychecks. They also may accumulate unused vacation time.

The big hit to city coffers results from the fact that the employees may save up 400 hours' worth of compensation. When they retire or otherwise leave their jobs, they collect what they have accrued.

That extremely generous formula is unequaled in the private sector, to our knowledge. Certainly, if an employee leaves in the middle of a calendar year, they should be paid for any unused vacation — for that year. That is standard for many employers and is fair.

But 400 hours equals 10 weeks of full-time work — far more vacation than most employees earn in a year. Allowing that much accrual encourages employees nearing retirement to forgo taking vacation or collecting overtime pay as they earn it in exchange for a big windfall when they leave.

That not only puts a big burden on the city, it shortchanges the public and a retiree's coworkers as well.

Vacation time is provided for a reason. Employees who work for long periods without time off are more stressed, less healthy and less productive on the job. Coworkers must pick up the slack and deal with a stressed-out colleague.

We do not begrudge city employees a decent benefit package. But the days of public servants earning a pittance relative to the private sector and making up for it with great benefits are long gone. These days, public employees make generous salaries as well — and their benefits far exceed those available in the private sector.

City negotiators should address that head-on at their next opportunity.

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