They’re Called ‘Boat Checks’ — Christie’s Last Bid to Reduce Mega Payouts to Public Retirees
Perhaps they’re going to need a smaller boat.
Despite more than seven years of effort, Gov. Chris Christie hasn’t been able to abolish what he derides as "boat checks" – the six-figure payouts, in one case exceeding a half-million dollars, that retiring local government workers have received as compensation for unused sick and vacation time.
But, such sick-leave payouts could get a little smaller. Christie’s Department of Community Affairs has proposed a rule that could take effect by year’s end that would nibble away at the size of the checks by saying that, going forward, unused time will be paid out at the rate an employee was being paid when he or she banked it, rather than at the person’s end-of-year salary.
“That seems to make sense,” Christie said. “If you didn’t use a sick day 20 years ago when you were getting paid $50,000 a year, but now 20 years later you’re getting paid $125,000, why should you get paid for the sick day from 20 years ago at the rate that you’re earning today?”
“Where else does that happen?” he said. “Only government can do this. Only government can come up with these rules. Or, what I should really say is, only government would acquiesce to that type of crap.”
For instance: A police officer wouldn’t be able to bank an unused sick day as a patrolman, eventually retire as police chief and be paid for that date at the rate he was earning as chief. It’d be paid at the first-year patrolman rate.
Also, if a person has to tap banked sick days, the most valuable ones would be used first, meaning workers’ leftover sick days from later in their career would be used before ones banked earlier. Think of it as “last earned, first burned” – though the state uses the phrase “last in, first out.”
Additionally, the state is looking to limit towns’ ability to make sick-leave payouts even if there’s not adequate documentation of the amount of an accumulated absence. It says that burden is on workers to maintain backup documentation going forward.
“I think that is the best I can hope to do now. Maybe they’ll get inspired,” Christie said of the Legislature. “I don’t understand why, and I’ve never understood, except for their obedience to their union bosses, why they think it’s a good idea to have $1 billion in sick-leave payouts as a liability for the state of New Jersey.”
The tab is even higher than that. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities says municipalities alone are on the hook for $863 million. That doesn’t count school districts and counties. NJ Spotlight calculated that the combined total is approaching $1.9 billion.
Some steps have been taken to curb the payouts. A 2010 law caps sick-leave payouts at $15,000, same as for state workers, for any local workers hired from then forward. But no changes have been enacted at the state level changing rules for other local workers.
East Rutherford Mayor James Cassella said a cap on sick-leave payouts would be helpful, saying “it gets rather expensive” when retiring workers look to be compensated for a few hundred days of accumulated leave.
Cassella likes the idea of basing sick-time payouts on the rate a person earned at the time.
“That’s logical because that always comes up in these discussions: ‘Wait a minute, if they would have taken their sick days 30 years ago, 25 years ago, they would have only been receiving ‘x’ amount of dollars,” Cassella said. “So there probably is some merit to this thinking.”
Cassella said “it’s doable,” though it would create extra record keeping requirements, but adds that it also sense to encourage people to bank sick time in case it’s needed later in their careers and to discourage some workers from using sick time even if they’re well.
“I do believe that the simpler way to do it is what I think the governor proposed and I do believe the Legislature is willing to do, going back a few years ago, was to set a cap,” Cassella said.
Christie asked in 2010 for a $15,000 cap on future sick-leave accumulations for existing workers, too. The Legislature passed that unanimously – but by then, Christie had decided the payouts should be ended, not capped, so he vetoed it. The Legislature didn’t go along, and Christie wouldn’t accept a $7,500 compromise.
Though the current rule proposal is a far cry from what Christie wanted to do, Christie said he doesn’t regret vetoing the cap.
“I think it would have been wrong for me to do. And I think it’s the obligation of the Legislature to not spend people’s money that irresponsibly to buy votes. And that’s what they’re doing,” Christie said.
“I don’t believe you should be paid because you were lucky enough not to be sick,” he said. “It’s a principled position. What, you should get $15,000 for not being sick as, like, a health bonus?”