Sick days carry high price tag

By Peter Schuh

The Illinois Board of Higher Education raised concerns Tuesday about sick and vacation day payouts that totaled $20 million in higher education last year.

Since the IBHE meeting, NIU Provost J. Carroll Moody and Steve Cunningham, Board of Regents assistant vice chancellor for personnel administration, have admitted the state’s present sick leave payout system carries a high price tag for the universities.

“I’m not surprised the issue’s being raised by the IBHE because the payouts are expensive,” Moody said.

As stipulated by Public Act 83-976, which was passed by the Illinois Legislature in 1983, an employee will receive compensation for half of his accumulated sick leave days when leaving state employment. Employees at public universities can accumulate between 7.1 and 21 sick days a year toward this payoff, depending on the policies of the individual university governing boards.

NIU, part of the Board of Regents system, allows its employees to accumulate 12 sick days a year with no cap on how many sick days an employee can accumulate in total.

This means a faculty or staff member who retires from or otherwise leaves NIU could continue to see more than a week’s paycheck for every year he had been employed at NIU.

“It wasn’t designed for that purpose,” Cunningham said. “When people do leave service and have sick days then they do receive a nice-sized check.”

Although some IBHE members thought it might be the case, Cunningham added, “It’s not designed as a severance package.”

The policy was created by the legislature because “the state-wide concern was that all employees were using all their sick days every year.”

He said the present system was intended to provide an incentive for state employees to stay at work.

However, because of the flexibility of their work environment, faculty members often do not record their sick days.

Moody said the legislature’s policy probably was not made to fit the specific work pattern of university faculty.

“I believe the policy is intended to reduce the amount of absenteeism, not so much in us but in other state agencies,” he said.

Moody said the payouts can be very substantial for faculty members.

In addition, he said, “The payout is based on your daily salary on the last day of your employment.”

This means sick days earned 10 years ago by a faculty member will be reimbursed at their ending salary.

When asked whether or not they thought the system could be improved, Moody and Cunningham said they were unsure and didn’t want to comment.

“Certainly, there’s a financial obligation there, and it can be a serious one,” Cunningham said. “But it’s a valuable employee benefit. It’s a benefit employees have learned to enjoy.”

Moody agreed with comments from some IBHE members that Illinois universities in general have less employee benefits than other state agencies.

“Somehow, whenever the legislature has addressed benefits the universities don’t seem to do as well,” he said. “I don’t know why that is.”

At the end of fiscal year 1993, NIU’s accumulated sick leave liability was $12.4 million. This is the amount of money NIU would have owed in sick leave days if all its employees quit at that time.