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Editorial: CPS, union must address cost of unused sick days

Updated: March 7, 2012 8:05AM

The Chicago Public Schools does not have $44 million a year to give away.

That’s the average amount CPS pays annually to employees for unused sick and vacation time, according to an analysis by the Better Government Association that ran in the Sun-Times on Friday.

For a school system in constant fiscal crisis, that adds up fast. Between 2006 and 2011, CPS paid out $265 million. The bulk of it, $227 million, went to veteran employees for unused sick days. Teachers can accumulate 10 sick days a year, up to 325 days total over a career. To turn them into cash, teachers must work 20 years or be 65 years old.

CPS must reign in this benefit, a perk it can ill afford and is virtually unheard of in the private sector. But this must be done with great care, starting with a recognition that CPS has no paid maternity or short-term disability leave. Teachers cover those leaves with unused sick leave, if they have it.

CPS is already planning to limit unused sick day payouts for non-union staffers in response to demands by the mayor. A set of recommendations are due Feb. 17. The biggest checks cut each year go for this group. A high school principal, for example, netted nearly $172,000 when he retired last year. There also is talk that CPS may, for the first time, offer a maternity and short-term disability policy for non-union employees.

But to make a real dent in CPS’ annual sick pay bill, the Chicago Teachers Union contract also must be changed. Though the average union employee payout is much smaller — $14,000 a year — 73 percent of the $265 million CPS paid since 2006 went to union employees.

The CTU defends the benefit, saying the ability to stockpile days discourages teachers from calling in sick unnecessarily. Extra days, the CTU also notes, were offered in the early 1980s as deferred compensation and in lieu of raises. These are good points, but reducing the number of accumulated sick days, even significantly, would still be fair and prudent.

The strongest argument for banking sick days is to make up for CPS’ failure to provide paid maternity or short-term disability leave.

Fix that problem — including a plan to properly fund it — and the arguments against reducing accumulated sick days disappear.

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