Sickleave banks for individual employees make a comback

déjà vu all over again. That’s how it is with the extended sick leave benefits the state provides to government employees. More than 10 years ago legislators passed a law that aimed to slow the creation of “sick leave banks” for individual employees by creating a larger, communal bank. For a while it worked. But individual sick-leave banks are back in vogue. By the end of September, 21 laws establishing sick-leave banks for individual state workers had been passed this year. In 2005, 14 were created.

In 1995, the Legislature created an “extended-illness leave bank,” or EILB, to try to take sick-leave banks off its docket. Before the EILB, an employee with a long-term illness or injury faced a lengthy legislative process to gain additional sick days, so as to not lose income. The employee had to petition his or her legislator to sponsor—and get both the House and Senate to pass and the governor to sign—a law creating a sick leave bank specifically for them. Then, the employee’s coworkers could donate to their colleague’s bank unused sick days they had accrued. Such a process was so time-consuming that there were instances of the legislation’s benefactor dying before the bill was even passed. And the administration of Gov. William Weld was not thrilled with the idea of employees amassing unlimited amounts of sick time.

The EILB, a communal reservoir of spare sick days for executive branch employees, streamlined the process and reduced the number of single-beneficiary bills working their way through the Legislature. Workers could enroll and contribute sick, vacation, or personal days to the bank. Any enrolled employee who became ill could withdraw up to 30 workdays at a time, up to a cap of 120 within a two-year period.

The program had an immediate effect. Lawmakers passed 22 individual sick-leave banks in 1994; in 1995, they passed just three.

Massachusetts is not alone in allowing sick-leave swaps by state employees. Some 17 other states offer leave-sharing banks. An additional 22 states allow employees to donate sick days directly to a specific colleague, according to a 2004 report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Today, 12,453 executive-agency employees are enrolled in Massachusetts’s EILB, according to the state’s Human Resources Division, which oversees the program; 209 have used the program.

Still, the number of individual sick leave bills on Beacon Hill is creeping back to pre-1995 levels. Partly, that’s because EILB applies only to executive-branch employees. Employees of other state agencies, such as courthouse workers, still have to go through the Legislature for the right to collect donated sick days. Also, some public-employee unions, having tangled with the Romney administration over other benefit issues, simply don’t trust the Human Resources Division to run the program.

“I think that given the anti-public-employee stance of this administration, the chances of anybody trusting managers to make thoughtful decisions regarding a sick leave bank is nil,” says David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees. “Any plan where employees are giving up their time should be run by the employees,” Holway says. “These people are adults. Let them make decisions about running the bank.”

Under a bill drafted earlier this year by the Joint Committee on Public Service, each state agency would set up its own sick leave bank for its employees, similar to EILB. The bill would have created a commission that included representatives from the governor’s office, the House and Senate leadership, and public service unions to help agencies set up and administer the banks.

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But the House chairman of the committee, Rep. Jay Kaufman, a Democrat from Lexington, says he got resistance—“legitimate pushback,” he calls it—from other lawmakers who believed the measure didn’t provide enough guidance and oversight to ensure that state employees in need of extra sick days are well-served. So, with the bill effectively dead for the current session, Kaufman is going back to the drawing board, drafting a bill for next session that he says will be “more descriptive and prescriptive.”

“We need to be confident that when we hand over responsibility for this that it will be assumed and assumed responsibly,” says Kaufman.

Until that happens, sick-leave-bank bills for individual state workers will remain a Beacon Hill ritual.