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Guest MINDSETTER™ Goodrich: Legislature Must Act on Excessive Unused Sick & Vacation Time

Friday, March 18, 2016

 

Dana Mohler-Faria

There’s something rotten in the Massachusetts higher education bureaucracy. Dana Mohler-Faria the President of Bridgewater State University, retired with a $269,984 payout for unused sick time, on top of an annual pension of $183,421 and $8,333 a month as an “adviser” to the university. The sheer size of the retirement package is enough evidence to require reforms to the higher education bureaucracy.

Even worse, Mohler-Faria was the only person responsible for determining how much sick time he used every year. There were no checks and balances, just a college president who calculated his own payout, practically inviting abuse. Unsurprisingly, this system allowed him to bank more unused sick time than almost any other state employee.

While he seemingly never took time off, Mohler-Faria’s job involved lots of travel that most people would consider a vacation. He took trips to Miami, Las Vegas, and other glitzy destinations in order to attend academic conferences. Altogether, it could be a Harvard Kennedy School case study of how to ruin public confidence in an institution.

Mohler-Faria is not the only state college president to retire with a big paycheck from unused sick time. Former Roxbury Community College President Terrence Gomes was forced to retire after he intentionally underreported campus crime and improperly delayed financial aid. Gomes received a $216,000 payout for unused sick and vacation time, which, like Mohler-Faria, he recorded for himself.

Running a college is a difficult job, requiring a leader who is part academic, part manager, and part cheerleader for the institution. Public universities need to offer a salary good enough to attract talented people to public education. What they don’t need is financial chicanery that lets administrators inflate their pension while enjoying a jet set lifestyle on the taxpayer’s dime. Those underhanded extravagances take money away from the students who most need resources while also hurting public trust in state universities.

These are extreme examples of a common problem – overly generous sick and vacation time policies that jeopardize Massachusetts’ fiscal health. As of June 2014, the state reported a liability of $484 million for all of the unused sick and vacation time. That’s an eye-popping sum of money that seems even worse once added to the state’s existing $600 million structural deficit.

Most state employees are under reasonable restrictions for how much time they accumulate. Usually, state workers are capped at 64 unused sick and vacation days. That’s not enough to earn anything like a six-figure payout. The exception are high-ranking administrators like Mohler-Faria and other college presidents. They have no limit on how much time they can bank. These are also the people most likely to be able to approve their own sick time. Once again, it reads like a textbook example of government mismanagement. The people who can cost the taxpayers the most money have the least scrutiny, while rank-and-file workers have strict limitations and monitoring.

High level state employees need more oversight to prevent them from racking up unrealistic, overly generous payouts from unused sick and vacation time. The lifetime payout for these benefits should be capped and outside auditors should be empowered to scrutinize outlier employees who have massive amounts of unused time. Nobody should be able to decide for themselves how many sick or vacation days they used.

As is so often the case in government, the answer to excessive unused sick and vacation time is more transparency and independent oversight. Governor Baker deserves credit for criticizing the payouts and calling for reform. Now it’s up to the legislature to enact meaningful rules so this doesn’t happen again.

 

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