Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Tao of Time Off

In government positions such as mine, there is no such thing as "severance pay."  As a political appointee, I serve at the pleasure of the governor.  I can thus be summarily dismissed without warning.  In order to attract some degree of competent talent for positions such as mine without having to offer severance pay, the state instead offers a hugely competitive vacation ("annual leave") accrual schedule, 173.6 hours per year, and allows the carryover of 320 hours per year.  That's eight weeks of pay, more than enough to compare apples-to-apples with a typical severance package for comparable positions in the private sector.

Of course, most employees aren't ascetic enough to go two full years taking a total of only three days' vacation to stockpile 320 hours, so it usually takes around four years for most employees to reach that threshold.  The private-sector standard is around two weeks of vacation per year, so that is what I've been taking.  And, right on schedule, heading into my fourth year next week I will have about 240 hours in the tank.  Not bad considering I have taken two paternity leaves, a week off every Christmas, and assorted other days off for personal purposes.  If I were laid off today, I would get six weeks' pay in vacation payout.  My boss has been with the state five years and is "full" -- he is taking off for his kids' "spring break" simply because he can.  He enjoys 21.6 days off per year and still maintains a full payoff cushion.

Sick time does not count and is recorded separately: people at my pay grade get 80 sick hours per year, 40 of which can be used for self or a family member.  This is convenient because my daughters frequently succumb to whatever plague is festering in the petri dish of day care at any given moment.  The private-sector norm has increasingly been to combine sick and vacation days into "personal days," and this makes sense for various reasons.  If a state employee quits or is terminated, they do not get paid out for sick balances unless they have stockpiled a high number of hours, and at each threshold the percentage of the payout is a bit higher (but never exceeds 50%).  And none of this counts retirement matching funds or any of that.  This policy helps to discourage the issue of the "iron worker" who never takes a sick day but comes in and works through every ailment, spreading germs and sending co-workers home with illnesses while hacking up a crescendo to distract whichever hardy souls avoid catching sick.  By far the best value of a state sick day is to take it when you or your family member is actually sick.  Any policy that rewards a person for using a tool for its intended purpose is fundamentally sound.

Steph and I have long wanted to compete in The Amazing Race or Survivor or something along those lines, so it would be great if we ever built up enough spare leave time to go on such an adventure.  In the private sector, it would be very difficult to do so at the lower vacation accrual rate.  It would force us to take a hit against our severance "cushions," but it would be worth it for the experience.  Like a swine beholding pearls, I didn't really have the awareness level to appreciate some of the adventures and experiences I have had in life, mainly because I was either chronically short of money or in poor health, or both.  Even if I took two weeks off to do nothing but camp in the wilderness, I think it would be something I can appreciate much more these days than I could before.   But I can't do it yet -- not if I want to keep building up that safety net.  I like that it's my choice one way or the other, though.

I guess all I have to do is have one of my stories optioned for a screenplay and pocket six figures, then take whatever time off I want.

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