Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature recently introduced and moved through committee a bill to end the abusive practice that allows public-sector workers to bank unused sick days. The bill is bitterly opposed by public-sector unions. But we think the fight is worth it. If legislators show an uncommon amount of courage, New Jersey taxpayers can rid themselves of this absurd fiscal burden and bring public-sector workers in line with everyday working people.
As a union member, I can say with authority that no worker in the private-sector trades in New Jersey gets to bank unused sick days and vacation days and walk away at retirement with a five- or six-figure lottery check. Most private-sector trade unionists don’t even get sick days or vacation days at all. In our professions, if you don’t go to work you don’t get paid, period. And most private sector workers must either use their sick days and vacation days or they lose them; they’re not a supplement retirement fund and should never have been allowed to be used as one by the public sector. But decades of limp leadership in Trenton from both Democrats and Republicans allowed the practice to get to absurd heights — or from the taxpayer's standpoint — ridiculous lows, forcing some towns to even borrow money to pay off retiring employee: ABSURD!
According to one report in NJ Spotlight, Jersey City public workers had amassed $116 million in banked days last year — and when the former police chief retired, he was due $512,000 in unused day. Newark owes its public workers $52.5 million. The County of Passaic, according to one filing, owes approximately $76 million in unused sick and vacation days to its employees.
Think of the things that could be done with that money, starting with property tax relief. Roads and bridges could be rebuilt, or parks upgraded for all of us to enjoy if we had a conscientious and responsible government.
The teachers union leaders — who mistakenly believe that they are part of the larger labor movement — are aghast that the Democrats would betray them and take away their cherished perk. It is arrogance that makes them feel that way. It's long past time when the system was corrected to protect private-sector workers who pay the indefensible perks granted to public-sector employees.
The teachers complain that the perks are necessary to make up for a lack of raises. Nonsense. If public employees in general think they are so underpaid that they need to game the system to get compensated for unused sick and vacation days, they can always jump to the private sector and see how the rest of us live.
Under the proposed legislation, every public employee would be able to keep whatever amounts they have earned up to the effective date of the law. Those who had already saved at least $7,500 would earn no more. Those who have not, and new hires, would be able to bank up to $7,500 in sick time, but most would not be paid for it. Instead, individuals could use the value of their accumulated sick time to pay for either health insurance premiums or co-pays over the first five years after retirement. Only veterans could receive a cash payment for future unused days.
The legislation is not ideal, but it is far better than anything Republicans have come up with and far more courageous than Democrats ever dared to be — until now.
We know the proposal is in part a retaliation against the notorious NJEA teachers union for funding a campaign against Sen. Steve Sweeney last fall. Regardless of the motivation, the objective is a worthy one. If the NJEA is going to be corrected for its abuses of influence, and it helps the average taxpayer, that's great news. Motivations for the legislation are not the issue, the results are. If homeowners and small business owners are no longer forced to fund expensive going-away presents for retiring public employees, that's a good thing.
It will be interesting to see which lawmakers cave in to the NJEA pressure. Look for the weak-willed lawmakers who are in office only to keep collecting a paycheck to either appease the public-sector union bosses or sneak into a corner and hide. Those that do, should be held accountable next year when the state Assembly members will face re-election. Let's keep an eye on who votes for the taxpayers and who caves into the abusive deals with the NJEA.