One-Fifth of State Employees Exceed Limits on Banked Vacation Days

Friday, January 16, 2015

State employees were racking up excessive vacation days long before furloughs between 2009 and 2013 had everyone banking future time to cover current shifts. There are limits to how many weeks a worker can squirrel away but they are nearly unenforceable and often exceeded.

The magical thinking that government could arbitrarily reduce employee hours and still accomplish work that was often mandated by law or a critical function led to less magical solutions like foregoing vacation time to cover shifts.

The Center for Investigative Reporting crunched numbers gathered by the State Controller’s Office and found that 35,000 state workers are “hoarding vacation days,” i.e., exceeding the state cap of 80 days. That is one-fifth of the employees tracked by the Controller.

The journalists wanted to write about the top vacation “hoarders” but the list of employees has vague job titles instead of names. Rick Chivaro, the controller’s top lawyer, told them the names were confidential personnel information.    

That made it harder for the center, but not impossible. As it turned out, Chivaro took second place on the list, accumulating 498 vacation days as of last June. He finished nine days behind Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, known affectionately as SFBRWQCB.  

Chivaro and Wolfe are two of the 300 or so employees with more than one year of banked vacation time. Chief Deputy State Auditor Doug Cordiner authored a government report in 2000 warning about the massive liability being accrued “that will become increasingly expensive to liquidate.” He has 264 days in the bank.

Two unidentifiable staff members of the California Energy Commission made the Top 10 hoarders, but Executive Director Robert Oglesby was not among them. He was identifiable and checked in with 309 days.

Judging by the center’s anecdotal evidence, accumulators of the most leave time were at the top of the employee food chain. But plenty of lesser lights earn honorable mention. The largest number of employees with more than 80 days leave were in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 13,351 (27%). They were followed by the Department of Transportation, 4,204 (21%) and the California Highway Patrol (CHP), 3,384 (32%).

Auditors, journalists and government critics have feasted on banked leave time for decades. The elastic rules allow labor costs, like pensions and health care, to be obscured and the obligations kicked down the road where, once discovered, can be condemned as a dangerous impediment to good government.

As the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) pointed out in a 2013 report about the effect of furloughs on leave time (it was huge), “The state’s large balance of unfunded leave liabilities can pose fiscal stress on departments, reduce budget transparency, strain management–employee relations, and negatively affect public trust in state employee management.”

The Analyst listed a series of measures that might be taken to rein in the unfunded liability of leave time, starting with enforcement of the 80-day cap, but seemed to acknowledge that not a whole lot could be done beyond lawmakers “containing their future growth.”

He recommended lawmakers consider instituting use-it-or-lose it conditions on leave time and reducing the number of available days off. While the Analyst did not recommend the state consider properly staffing its departments, he did recognize that “high leave balances may indicate that employees at a department do not take time off due to high workload.”

“The legislative budget subcommittees may wish to examine departments with high leave balances to determine whether additional staffing resources or changes in statutory duties may be merited,” he wrote.      

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Thousands of California State Workers Are Hoarding Vacation Days (by Will Evans, The Center for Investigative Reporting)

State Racking Up Huge Debt for Employees' Stored Leave (by Melody Gutierrez, San Francisco Chronicle)

After Furloughs: State Workers' Leave Balances (Legislative Analyst’s Office)

State Agencies Credited Their Employees with Millions of Dollars Worth of Unearned Leave (California State Auditor) (pdf)

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