Commission deals with concerned employees - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Commission deals with concerned employees

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June 20, 2006

Albany --  It was a double edge sword for commissioners. They had planned to stop the current sick accrual benefit and only pay employees for a portion of their accrued leave, but long time employees instantly fought back. 

If they phased out the sick leave pay-outs, employees who are eligible to retire, threatened to quit all at once. That would mean the city would have to pay out millions of dollars this year and dozens of critical positions would be vacant.

At the same time if commissioners didn't change the policy, the city would have to continue writing out big checks to long time employees when the leave.

Pressure from City of Albany employees stops commissioners from making controversial changes to the city's leave policy. Now, city employees can bank unused sick days and get paid for them at retirement or when they leave after a certain amount of time. If all the employee eligible for retirement did so today, the city would have to pay out $6.8 million.    

About 200 city employees packed the commissioner chambers this morning, many of them worked sick and skipped vacation under promises they would get paid for those unused leave days years down the road. 

"Most of your good employees have good attendance," said Water, Gas and Light employee Keith Gooding. "They are the ones that now have savings that they've looked forward to all their lives and their spouses look forward to it. And they are due a pay out at some point."

But city commissioners discussed phasing out that pay-out over time. So if an employee retired now, they would only get paid for 80% of the leave time they've accrued. Next year, only 70% and so on down. It would save taxpayers millions over the years since the city has paid some employees up to $90,000 for banked leave days.

"They have to do what they have to do. But I have to do what I have to do," said Johnny Harris. Johnny Harris, a 29 year public works employee, says he and many others will retire immediately if it means not losing the leave benefit. "I might as well. I'm not going to leave my money like that. I need my money and my family does too. It will be hard," said Harris. Commissioners heard Harris' complaint and many others. They gotten hundreds of calls from disgruntled city employees.  

"People are saying the moral will be low. A lot of them have decided they just will go."   Commissioner Dorothy Hubbard was applauded when she voice concerns that a mass exodus of employees would cost the city big too.

And, commissioner Jon Howard suggested organizing a task force to look at other options to deter big pay-outs while still giving employees benefits they were promised. "Some of their lives are in our hands so we really have to look at all the options."

Commissioner Bob Langstaff argued sick leave accrual is an unfair burden for taxpayers that most Georgia cities did away with long ago.  "I don't think we can just afford to keep committing the sins of the past. I want our people to be paid what folks in these other cities are being paid instead of hiding behind this smoke screen of odd benefits."

But in the end, the employees got their way. At least for now. Commissioner dropped the changes and said they'll look at other options that won't hurt employees so much.  

One of those other options is to allow employees to use the banked sick days towards their retirement. So instead of getting paid out, they would be able to retire earlier. That's something the proposed task force will review before making new suggestions to commissioners in the future.  

Commissioners did agree to do away with sick leave accrual for new hires. All employees will now have to use they're sick leave each year or lose it.

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