Banking on sick leave

There’s nothing like providing a job benefit one worker at a time. But that’s the way it is when it comes to supporting some government employees during an extended illness. A law passed five years ago was supposed to put an end to all that, but bills to create so-called “sick-leave banks” for individual civil servants still routinely pop up on the Legislature’s docket. There have been 17 such requests this session alone.

It all started a decade ago, when a Department of Mental Health employee was battling leukemia and used up all of his sick days. The employee’s co-workers asked their union, the Service Employees International Union Local 509, for a way to transfer their unused sick leave to the ailing worker, according to Cliff Cohn, director of operations at SEIU. A brainstorming session led to a new law creating a personal sick-leave “bank,” made up of donated sick days, to keep the employee’s paycheck coming during his absence from work.

With the precedent set, similar bills for other ill workers came fast and furious, clogging the legislative calendar. “It kind of took on a life of its own,” Cohn says.

The Weld-Cellucci administration, however, was not thrilled by the potential for employees to accumulate unlimited caches of sick time. And the Legislature was eager to streamline the cumbersome bestowal of benefits one by one. So, in 1995, an “extended-illness leave bank” was created by statute to make the leave-swap available to any executive branch employee. Now, a worker who has logged at least one year of service can donate earned leave time to the common pool, and any employee suffering an extended illness (and who meets certain criteria) can claim up to 120 days in any two-year period.

The law only slowed, but did not stop, the flow of individual-benefit bills. That’s because the arrangement covers only executive-branch employees. Other public-sector workers still have to get their sick-day stockpiles the old-fashioned way: They ask their local legislator to file a bill. Ten employees of the state trial court, for instance, have sick-leave bank proposals pending this session. Folks who transfer from one level of government to another also fall between the cracks.

That’s what happened to Mary Ellen Mastrorilli. Mastrorilli, 43, left the state Department of Correction in 1997 for the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office. With perfect attendance for 11 of her 17 years at DOC, she amassed 208 days-a full work year-in unused sick time, but lost all of it when she changed jobs. Then, last September, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had nothing to fall back on.

Feeling “angry and frustrated,” she says, Mastrorilli appealed to her legislator, Rep. Vinny M. deMacedo (R-Plymouth), in November. She was not looking for a sick-leave bank for herself, she says, but had “hopes of changing the system.”

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But a sick-leave bank was what she got. Gov. Cellucci signed it into law at the end of May—one of only two sick-leave bank bills to make it into law since 1997. Ironically, Mastrorilli didn’t turn out to need it: Her treatment was brief enough and her prognosis good enough that she has no plans to use any extra sick days.

At least they’re there if she needs them. Mastrorilli remains annoyed that, though the 1995 law spells out that employees are to be informed that they can participate in the common bank, she never heard about it before she left state service. If she had, she says, she would have donated her 208 days “in a heartbeat.” Instead, not only was she not able to use them, but neither was anyone else.