COUNTY WRESTLES WITH $3M IN UNUSED HOLIDAY TIME

At the meeting of the district commissioner on January 21, the board members were presented with a dilemma. Of the approximately 579 employees in Monroe County, many have been unable to take vacation days during the pandemic. And a few years before that, days off were difficult to schedule during the recovery from Hurricane Irma. Should the board firmly adhere to the province’s current ‘use it or lose it’ rule? Or should employees be paid for unused vacation?

Bryan Cook, director of human resources for the county, explained the dilemma and offered a solution. Since 2014, the usual provincial policy has been “use it or lose it” for vacation days. But the board waived this rule after Irma and during COVID-19, allowing the unused vacation days to roll into the following year.

“We’ve had issues with people being able to use that time,” he said at the meeting, adding that “we have very lean staff.”

In 2021, when a colleague called after he tested positive for COVID, or had to be quarantined due to exposure, the other staff members in their department were unable to take a holiday, especially in the departments where operations can’t take a break – such as the fire service, social services and airports.

This has created a “balloon” of unused time that the province has to pay when an employee resigns.

“A $20,000 check for two or three people in a department can have an impact on our budget,” said Tina Boan, the county’s senior director for budget and finance. She also pointed out that the county currently has a total of $3 million in vacation pay for all employees on the books. Theoretically, the province does not have to pay this in one go, but during an audit this is seen as a financial obligation.

Also, much of a lump sum of unused vacation paid to an employee upon layoff is often earned at the lower wage they earned at the start of their job. But the payment given when an employee leaves is on their most recent pay, which often includes pay increases over the years.

“So I’m just trying to balance that and pay out honestly at the lower rate,” Boan said.

The solution? Cook suggested that every April 1 of each year, the county pay workers for unused vacation to keep that “balloon” down. For full-time employees, the maximum number of hours they can carry over to the next year – a “cap” – is 480. So on April 1 of each year, they must be paid for the amount they have accrued above the cap.

For example, if a Monroe County Fire Rescue employee accrued 500 vacation hours in 2021, on April 1, 2022, they will receive a check for 20 hours. And their balance would drop to 480.

Commissioner Cates feared this would “encourage” workers not to take holidays.

“We can say, ‘Well, you’re being paid twice — now you’re getting your vacation pay plus your work pay,'” Cates said.

“I think people should take their holidays,” said Commissioner Michelle Coldiron.

So the board and Cook reached a compromise: This year, on April 1, the province will compensate employees for all hours accrued over their maximum. Then, as long as 2022 goes back to a more “normal” year, the province will return to “use or lose” for unused vacation.

Cook told Keys Weekly, “The price tag of this payout is about $173,000. That’s less than three county-wide employee salaries and benefits. … In such circumstances, we have to find the right medium between paying for the time the employees have earned.” and be a good steward for the taxpayer.”

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