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SEIU to Lathrop Council: Put vacation cash-out perk on hold
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LATHROP - The city’s municpal union employees called for an end to the “costly abuse of the vacation cash-out privilege at the expense of our Lathrop community” at the June 7 Lathrop City Council meeting

They also asked the council to place the issue for discussion on the June 21 agenda.

That did not happen.

But the city employees belonging to SEIU Local 1021 (Service Employees International Union) were back before the council on June 21 to steer city officials’ attention to the same concern.

The only difference was that, this time, they were not asking for the complete removal of this job benefit – called a perk by the union members, and referred to as a work incentive by city management – but to hold it in abeyance until Lathrop’s economic climate returns to the boom days of a decade ago.

“We do not want to get rid of it outright. We’re not saying get rid of it 100 percent, just freeze it until the economy gets better,” said Animal Services employee Venecia Brown, one of two in the group that addressed the council during the citizen’s forum period of the meeting.

Noting the absence of this issue on the June 21 agenda despite their official request for it to be included, Brown asked the council members and staff, “When will this be addressed?”

In the same vein, SEIU representative Caroline Lucas pointed out that when the employees brought up the issue of vacation hours being cashed out, “not a single question was asked by the council about that.”

She added that after running the numbers, the union found out that the cash-out vacation total amount paid out in 2009 was higher than the total number for the previous two years combined.

Available figures from the city’s web site, which the union obtained to back up its claims, showed that Lathrop paid a total of $65,814.97 in vacation buy-backs to 16 employees in 2009. City Manager Cary Keaten topped the vacation buy-backs paid by the city for 2009 at $11,836.88 followed by accounting manager Cari James at $10,748.75 and finance director Terri Vigna at $9,635.59.

City employees qualified to cash out vacations not taken submit their requests toward the end of the calendar year and not at the end of the fiscal year beginning on July 1.

In response to the union’s comments about vacation buy-backs, the city manager explained that “management staff does have the ability to cash out vacation hours” under the following two conditions:

•They can cash out 40 hours of earned vacation time if they do not use it in a given year, a benefit that was set in place on Sept. 17, 2002, Keaten pointed out.
•The number of earned vacation time hours was increased when the city adopted the furlough program on July 21, 2009. The furlough was designed to help bridge the city’s anticipated $2.5 million budget deficit.

Friday furloughs translated to a 10 percent decrease of city employees’ salaries across the board and the closure of City Hall on Fridays except for emergency services.

Other actions that have since been undertaken to pare down the budget deficit included the elimination of job positions – unfunding budget positions as well as the layoff of more than two-dozen employees, most of whom were union employees. Also laid off was former Community Development Department director when that department was abolished as part of the streamlining of city services.

Explaining further the reason behind the vacation cash-out benefit, Keaten said, “the program was created as an incentive program to keep people at work working. The reason the program was expanded was similar. Basically, with fewer staff members (due to layoffs) and fewer work hours (due to furloughs), management staff has had fewer opportunities to take time off of work.”

He added, “Even if management staff did not cash out any vacation, the staff member would either use the vacation time by taking a vacation or it would continue to accumulate in their vacation ‘bank.’ In Lathrop, as with most all cities, if an employee earns a vacation hour, we set the funds to pay for that hour aside and do not spend them on something else. Therefore, cashing out vacation time or taking a vacation would not save the city money nor would it save or create a job. It’s revenue neutral to the city.”