Crawford County faces a unique situation with commissioner-elect Paul Watson. Watson is currently an employee with the county, but will leave that position at the end of the year to take on his role with the commission on January 1. In changing positions, he stands to lose vacation time, since elected officials don’t have that benefit and he would like to be paid for it.
Watson has been an employee in Road and Bridge District #2 since 1999 and has accumulated both vacation and compensation time. According to current policy, when a person leaves employment with the county, they are paid for compensation time accrued, but not for vacation time. Watson has two issues with the situation: one, he disagrees with the policy; and two, he believes he is not leaving the county, just changing positions, so he should be paid for the vacation time accrued.
The question of how to handle the situation was posed to the current commission at their December 18 meeting. County Clerk Mardy Leathers brought it to District #1 Commissioner Richard Martin and Presiding Commisioner Leo Sanders (District #2 Commissioner John Hewkin was not at the meeting), noting that he has followed the policy since his election and, when other employees have left the county, they have not been paid for vacation time, only compensation time.
Earlier this year, the commission made an amendment to allow employees to rollover 80 hours of vacation time instead of 40, as had previously been permitted, but there had been no change on payout for the time when an employee separated from the county’s employment.
As of December 18, Watson had 155 vacation hours remaining. Beginning the following day, there were only 56 working hours left for the county to the end of the year, so even if he went on vacation at that time, he would stand to lose 99 hours.
“I just felt like it was earned,” Watson told the commission. “And it’s right here at the holidays. It’s the easiest time of the year, so I was just going to work till January 1. And I didn’t feel like I was quitting the county.”
As the group considered the question of how to handle the issue, it was noted that current Recorder of Deeds Kim Cook had been in a similar situation when she moved from an employee in that office to the elected official. She was asked to join the meeting and questioned on whether she had lost time in her transfer.
“I had accumulated vacation and personal time and I lost everything,” she reported. “I believe I asked Ed Worley (former presiding commissioner) about it, just in my office and he just told me that I would lose everything. I lost five weeks of vacation and I’m not sure how many personal days I had.” She also noted when the previous recorder had transferred from county employment to elected official, she had lost accrued vacation time, too.
“I wish you would have come in to all of us (the entire commission),” Martin said. “I would have been against that.” Martin stated several times during the course of the discussion that he felt it wasn’t right to take the benefit from the employee when it had been earned.
Cook responded, “I just figured I was going on to something better. I have no hard feelings.”
Sanders addressed Watson, “Paul, I don’t know what to tell you.” Referring to the policy, he added, “From what I read here, I would probably be taking my vacation till the end of December at least.”
“I think that’s a flaw,” Watson replied. “I don’t think that’s right. If we’re going to fix it, we have to fix it somewhere.”
Sanders agreed with him, but stated it was probably not something that could be addressed at this time. He again encouraged Watson to at least use what vacation time he could through the end of the year.
“That’s one of the reasons I ran for commission,” Watson said, “because of the handbook we have and injustices done to the hourly employees of the county.”
While Sanders pointed out that the current policy prevented payout for vacation time, Watson responded that the current commissioners could override that policy. Sanders felt that the commission would need guidance from the county attorney before making that kind of decision, but Bill Seay was not available at that time.
“I will get an opinion from Bill Seay,” Sanders told Watson, noting that the commission could again discuss the situation at their meeting scheduled for December 27, “but if you don’t use your vacation you may just lose it.”
“I will guarantee it will never happen to another employee,” Watson replied. “I was under the impression if I worked till the end of the year, I got it.”
Martin noted that, while Cook had said she had no problems with what had happened, there could be others who could come forward and complain if this change was made. He also reported that Road and Bridge District #1 employees who were near retirement used their vacation time before leaving the county. “They must all be aware of this,” he said.
Watson reiterated that, even if he went on vacation time immediately and continued through the end of the year, he would still lose money because of the number of hours he had accrued. But Sanders again pointed out, “You wouldn’t lose it all if you go ahead and take off. And then we can make a decision at our last meeting on Thursday night. We can get a legal opinion from Bill Seay and go from there. I know it’s not what you want to do, but I’m asking if that is a compromise at this point.”
Watson replied, “If I’m just going to lose it all, I’ll just go home. But as a long-term employee, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Sanders concurred that it was an issue that the new commission should address. “I definitely think it’s something to take up after the first of the year,” he said. Martin agreed that it should be a decision for the next governing body. He also noted that, during his tenure, they had attempted to work on a new employee handbook, but had been met with opposition from some within the county.
“This handbook has been in question for at least 13 and a half years,” Watson said, noting that from the time he began work with the county, there was discussion on the problems with it, but no change had been effected. He added, “In the handbook you have, it says you can change it right now without any warning to anybody. Ultimately it comes down to the commission on the way that handbook is written, because you have the final say. Sitting behind that desk, you can change anything at any time.”
Sanders also pointed out that he would like to have input from Hewkin on the topic as well and Martin agreed.
Watson said, “I always looked at an injustice as an injustice whenever it happens,” and expressed frustration with those who continually talk about making changes but don’t do it.
“You’ll see why after the first of the year,” Martin quipped.
“I will change the handbook,” Watson replied. “I’m here for four years.”
Martin and Leathers noted that a change to providing payout for vacation to those who leave employment with the county would mean a necessary change in budgeting as well. Leathers pointed out that the county has not done well with budgeting for payroll liabilities, but has started by putting funds aside for the compensation payout. He also noted that the current county budget does not have the available funds to pay vacation upon separation. “We’ve never in the history of the county budgeted for this,” Leathers said. “We should have a different category budgeted for payroll liabilities.”
Martin agreed, and told the commissioners-elect they would need to look at employees with longevity who might decide to save their vacation time for a type of bonus check upon their retirement. “If you do this, you better figure out your budget, because salaries come out of road and bridge and you don’t have a whole lot for that. You will have to compensate for that on your budget.” He said that under current budgets, there is just not the available funding to pay out five weeks vacation like what Cook had accrued before her change in status.
Returning to the subject of his personal concern, Watson said, “My point was, if I would have taken off when I won the election, it would have put you one person short. They would have probably went out and hired another man, and paid my vacation, too.”
Sanders, Martin, and Leathers all agreed that there would have been discussion on that and that it was possible that another person would not have been hired because of funding concerns.
“I don’t like taking money from someone who’s earned it,” Martin said. “But we have to use our thinking cap because you can get yourself in serious dutch.”
Sanders added, “I hope (employees) understand we do feel for them and we want to work for them, but sometimes (the funds) aren’t there.” Leathers agreed and said, “It’s also cash flow, just because it’s budgeted, doesn’t mean it’s in the bank to cover it. That’s where our funds can get into trouble.”
“Does the policy manual need work?” asked Sanders. “Absolutely. And, I think it’s up to us to see it done in the following year.”
“We need to get it fixed, not just say we need to fix it,” Watson replied.