Some question school workers' benefits

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Frank Schultz
Friday, April 12, 2013

Janesville School Board members were surprised recently when they delved into the rules for time off among the district's 1,300 or so employees.

Could someone possibly be paid not to work for 59 days a year?

Add up vacations, paid holidays, personal days, sick days, funeral days, adoption days and other categories of days off, and some school district employees are eligible to be away from work for 50 or more days each year while still getting paid.

School board President Bill Sodemann called those numbers "obscenely excessive" at this week's school board meeting.

Other school board members argued it's nearly impossible for an employee to qualify for all those days off in a given year, so it's not as flagrant as it might seem.

Take, for example, the clerical workers who work year-round. They are eligible for the most days off of any group, 59.

But not all of those clerical workers are eligible for the maximum five weeks of vacation. They must work 21 years to get to that level.

The district also allows those clerical workers 11 paid holidays, 12 sick days, four days for family illness or funeral in the immediate family, two days for non-family funerals, two days if they are summoned to appear in court and one day for a family graduation.

"Just because they're there doesn't mean we use them all," said Donna Stenner, chief steward of the AFSCME Local 938 unit covering aides, secretaries and clerks.

Stenner said the number of paid days off is not excessive and it's what the union has bargained for over many years.

Stenner said that in her 19 years with the district, she has used the family illness/bereavement days only one or two years, and she used the maximum only once so she could travel out of state to her mother's funeral.

The numbers and variety of reasons for paid days off might sound excessive to those in the private sector, but workers get more days off than some might realize.

At The Gazette, for example, a worker with more than 19 years on the job qualifies for 20 days of vacation, six paid holidays and four to 10 sick days, for a maximum of 36 days a year, plus three days of funeral leave for each immediate family member.

Teachers are contracted to work 190 days. They are out of the classroom and not paid for about 11 weeks during the summer. They also are not paid winter and spring breaks. Teachers get no vacation during the school year.

Teachers get three paid holidays and are eligible for up to 10 sick days, two personal days and four more days for funeral, adoption, family illness, a graduation or a court appearance.

Officials report 86 of the 757 teachers did not use any of their two personal days last year, while 210 used less than two.

Also, nine teachers used all their sick leave last year while 30 of the clerical staff did so, 13 of the custodians did and two support-staff members did.

Food service workers and some of the principals, clerical, custodial and support staff also are not contracted to work the full 260 days (52 weeks) a year.

The issue came up this spring as the school board reviewed employee benefits. The board is revising benefits and work rules in preparation for the next school year, when union contracts will disappear. The board is devising a handbook that will take the place of old contracts for the district's approximately 1,300 union and non-union workers.

David DiStefano especially was struck by the complicated the system, with so many kinds of paid time off and rules varying for different groups. DiStefano suggested a simpler system would be easier to administer.

But administrators told the board that their system for tracking days off works well, and abuse is rare.

Several board members have said they believe the number of days off is excessive in some cases and should be addressed. But on Tuesday, the board voted 7-2 to postpone action until next year, with Sodemann and Scott Feldt voting "no."

The main argument was that the board has too many other issues, including a new health insurance system, to deal with this spring.

DiStefano, an employee benefits specialist, said he was satisfied with the administration's explanations.

Kevin Murray noted that the rules had been bargained for in good faith over many years and that it would be nearly impossible for an employee to use the maximum number of days for illness, funerals, adoption, graduation or court.

Greg Ardrey agreed that the chances of qualifying for all those days would be slim, but he said the number of days is excessive in some cases.

Sodemann was not satisfied and argued passionately to take up the issue now: "Folks, this is crazy, just beyond what many of our taxpayers have."

Last updated: 10:26 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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