MONDAY, JAN. 30, 2012

FOLLOW-UP: Mayor Emanuel Cracks Down On Sick-Day Payouts

For Wayne Watson, it sure paid to stay healthy.

By the time Watson left his job as chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago in 2009, he had accrued around 500 unused sick days over his three-decade career with the community college system.

While many public and private employers have a “use-it-or-lose-it” policy on sick time, City Colleges converted Watson’s unused days into cash – a whopping $500,000 that’s being paid to him in five annual increments, the Better Government Association has learned.

Watson, who now serves as president of Chicago State University, may be the largest recipient of sick-day payouts at City Colleges in recent years. What’s more, the combination of his City Colleges sick-day payout, current salary from Chicago State and annual pension means Watson takes in nearly $500,000 annually in government payments.

But he’s far from the only recipient of this taxpayer-funded largesse.

The college system owes about 140 former union and nonunion employees a collective $4.2 million in unused sick time, according to records provided by City Colleges to the BGA.

Over the past decade or so, this group of retirees has been paid just about $3 million, the records show.

It’s worth noting the City Colleges board, at the urging of current Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, voted this past November to eliminate the perk for nonunion employees hired after Jan. 1, 2012.

“Under the new sick day policy, [nonunion] employees will not be able to ‘cash out’ sick days at the end of employment,” City Colleges Vice Chancellor Laurent Pernot told the BGA via email. The change was made to “save taxpayer resources,” he added.

But for now, taxpayers are footing the bill for Watson, who would not comment for this story other than to say, “You’re asking me about three years ago and a different institution.”

Aside from the $100,000 annually that City Colleges still is paying him for sick time, Watson is receiving nearly $140,000 a year in pension payouts through the State Universities Retirement System and $250,000 a year in salary from Chicago State, according to records and interviews.

Wayne Watson Jose Mora 365
​Wayne Watson, ex-chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago (Jose More)

Watson was chancellor of City Colleges for 11 years, and was paid $300,000 annually at the time he retired. Under the system’s policy at the time, departing nonunion employees who meet certain age and service requirements were able to convert 80 percent of their unused sick time to cash, with no cap on how many days they could amass.

Under the new policy, nonunion employees can accrue up to 200 days of sick time. But they aren’t allowed to cash out any of those days when they leave the college system, Pernot said.

On the rank-and-file side, employees represented by the Cook County College Teachers Union who were hired before July 15, 2000, can cash out 80 percent of their unused sick days upon leaving City Colleges, so long as they meet certain age and service requirements. And there’s no cap on the number of days they can collect.

Union members hired on or after July 15, 2000, can cash out a maximum of 80 unused sick days.

City Colleges, in upcoming negotiations, hopes to bring the union side in line with nonunion employees, Pernot said.

Dennis Nirtaut, a professor of human resources and employment relations at Loyola University Chicago, said the private sector began killing off this type of perk years ago, and rightly so.

Told of Watson’s situation, Nirtaut said, “Essentially it’s a liability. To cash it out when you leave, that’s a big liability on top of his pension. It’s kind of like a double dip and taxpayers are paying for it. I personally think it’s a poor policy.”

The sick days do not factor into Watson’s City Colleges pension, which is based on his former salary and years of service there, officials said. (He is not expected to draw another pension for his Chicago State employment, officials said.)

Meanwhile, at least 15 other former City Colleges administrators were owed $100,000 or more in sick-time payouts over the past decade or so, records show.

For example, Charles Guengerich, former president of Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, is slated to receive $309,061 in sick time. Martin Faber, former executive director of business services at Richard J. Daley College on the Southwest Side, is expected to receive $216,973.

City Colleges has about 120,000 students at seven main campuses, and an annual budget of more than $650 million.

The graduation rate – which charts students getting a two-year degree within three years – was 8 percent this past year, Pernot said. A goal of Hyman and her boss, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is to increase that rate, graduating more students but also providing more meaningful training and education that translate to better careers, officials said.

Watson accumulated so many sick days in part because he was able to convert some unused vacation time into sick days, a policy for nonunion employees that’s still allowed. (Nonunion employees also are able to cash out up to 30 unused vacation days upon leaving City Colleges. When Watson departed in 2009, he was slated to receive about $37,000 as a vacation-day payout, records show.)

Either way, based on the records, his health was pretty good during the decade before he retired. They show that he took 11.5 sick days from 2000 until his retirement.