Atlanta council approves $2 million for employees over lost vacation

HOW THEY VOTED:

YES: Councilwoman Carla Smith (District 1), Councilman Kwanza Hall (District 2), Councilman Ivory Lee Young (District 3), Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4), Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Councilman Howard Shook (District 7), Councilman C.T. Martin (District 10), Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1 At-Large).

NO: Councilman Alex Wan (District 6), Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean (District 8), Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11) and Councilwoman Mary Norwood (Post 2 At-Large).

Absent: Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9), Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd (District 12) and Councilman Andre Dickens (Post 3 At-Large).

The Atlanta City Council voted Monday to give nearly $2 million to employees who lost unused vacation time last year, with members of Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and a municipal court judge standing to receive some of the largest paydays.

The move affects roughly 1,450 employees, with public safety workers receiving more than 40 percent of the funds, or about $800,000. Classified workers, typically hourly employees eligible for overtime, will be paid about $380,000 in the deal.

But members of Reed’s administration and a municipal court judge are poised to receive some of the biggest individual checks, with many now owed five-figure payouts for excess vacation time. City leaders note the high payouts are a function of bigger salaries.

According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a sample of employees who will now be paid for lost vacation time reveals that Municipal Court Judge Crystal Gaines will be paid $21,500 for lost vacation, Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard will receive $12,000 and Reed’s Chief of Staff Candace Byrd will receive roughly $10,500. Andrea Boone, head of the Office of Constituent Services, will earn nearly $15,000. And City Attorney Cathy Hampton will be paid more than $8,000.

Several Atlanta Police Department leaders will also receive similar hefty payouts for lost vacation under the deal. Elected officials are not eligible for the compensation, city leaders said.

A handful of councilmembers asked for more time to review the legislation, but District 10 Councilman C.T. Martin — who sponsored the payout legislation — said it was important to pass it now so that those employees could receive checks by Christmas. Martin, who has long opposed caps on vacation time carry-over amounts, said employees should be compensated fairly for the time they earned.

“It’s important that we let our employees know that we tried to do something, to make sure that somebody will have a happy Christmas,” he said.

“As I said before, it’s important to manage your annual leave and sick leave” he continued, because “you never know what will happen.”

In a cost-saving move under former Mayor Shirley Franklin, the city imposed caps on vacation and sick days employees can carry over year to year. The number of vacation days employees can carry over varies by tenure, beginning with 25 carry-over days in the first five years of employment and topping out at 45 days for employees with more than 20 years of employment.

Martin’s legislation doesn’t change those limits, but allows employees who lost vacation time in excess of those limits for 2013 only. The money will be paid from the city’s reserve funds.

The decision to allow payouts comes months after news broke that Reed's administration paid a select number of employees thousands for unused sick, vacation and compensatory time in so-called hardship payments. Among them, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, the city's top earner at $241,000 a year, was paid nearly $80,000 for unused leave in 2013.

Martin said his legislation seeks to address employee concerns over fairness. Many employees had never heard of the hardship program under which Turner and others were paid.

Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres said the administration was not behind Martin’s measure, but supported the measure.

Detractors on the council said the payouts don’t fix the original concerns. And some councilmembers said it will encourage employees to not use their vacation in hopes they, too, will receive payments for that time.

“This stems ostensibly about a discussion regarding equity,” said District 11 Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms. “We have some very large payout amounts and they obviously are attached to categories of people who make high salaries … Are we repeating the same thing that brought all of the criticism?”

In a 8 to 4 vote, District 8 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, District 6 Councilman Alex Wan and Post 2 At-Large Councilwoman Mary Norwood also voted with Bottoms against the payments.

Norwood suggested capping the amount employees can receive, a move that Bottoms also pursued with a proposed amendment to Martin’s measure. That effort was unsuccessful.

Adrean acknowledged that the payments are being made to employees who earned that time, “but the reason we have a vacation policy is for people to use vacation.”

Adrean said the council should consider a larger issue: why employees aren’t taking the time given to them.

Wan said the measure raises myriad questions. For example, it’s unknown how the payouts, which Martin brought to a vote after it was held twice in committee, will affect pension payments to employees who retired this year and lost vacation time in 2013.

Wan called for a comprehensive strategy in addressing salary concerns. Earlier this summer, Martin and the council formed a technical advisory committee to study the issue. That committee hasn’t yet completed its work.

Ken Allen, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, has mixed feelings about Martin’s legislation. He points out that it benefits both exempt and nonexempt workers who have different reporting requirements regarding vacation.

“I’m not against it because there are employees benefiting from it,” he said. “But I feel there are a lot of executive employees benefiting from this who are probably undeserving.”