Some 2,400 public employees in Arizona cashed in thousands of hours of unused sick leave last year, costing local and state governments more than $27.9 million at a time when many of them have frozen wages, imposed unpaid time off, cut services and in some cases, raised taxes and fees.
As part of an ongoing examination of public-employee benefits, The Arizona Republic looked at employees of the state, its two largest counties and their biggest cities.
The newspaper found that at least five public employees accrued thousands of hours of sick leave during their careers and were each paid at least $100,000 for it when they retired last year. That's more than double what a privately employed Arizonan earns on average in a year.
The investigation also found that the city of Phoenix paid $10.79 million for unused sick leave to 903 employees last year, for an average payment of $11,958. Payouts went to roughly 6 percent of the 15,000-member city work force.
Supporters of sick-leave payouts say ending the benefit would be unfair because public employees count on them, and they are used to recruit workers.
Critics say the practice, especially during tough economic times, is a waste of money, and that employees should not be rewarded simply for showing up to work and not abusing sick leave.
Among the 12 public employers reviewed, the highest individual sick-leave payouts last year went to four Phoenix police employees. All worked for the city more than three decades before retiring.
The largest payout of $144,279 went to George Richards, a retired Phoenix police commander whose 35 years of accumulated sick-leave payout eclipsed his final year's salary.
Richards told the Republic he understands that some taxpayers might be upset about the large payout, but he said he protected the public and made sacrifices.
``I worked nights, off and on, for 35 years and weekends and holidays,'' he said. ``The first five years I was married I worked on Christmas. ... I was willing for 35 years to do whatever I could to keep increasing my long-term benefit. I knew what the rules were going in, and I played by the rules.''
Scottsdale had the highest average sick-leave payout of $24,443 per employee, with 43 employees collectively receiving slightly more than $1 million. Tempe had the lowest average payout last year at $5,629 for 154 employees.
The state of Arizona, which includes all state agencies, higher education, courts and the retirement systems, last year paid $6.3 million to 502 employees, with an average payout of $12,591.