Pay day in Chicago

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That was our reaction when we read that Chicago Public Schools paid out $265 million to ex-employees for their unused vacation and sick days since 2006. The average payout for the 19,000 employees was just less than $14,000, though some 300 former employees received more than $100,000.

A $14,000 bonus check at retirement works out to be an average payout of $560 a year—and is a rollover of just a little more than one unused sick day a year (if a teacher retires with 25 years of service.) It doesn't sound like a lot, but in fact Chicago's rate is clearly more generous than what we found in other large school districts in our Tr3 database.

Chicago teachers receive 10 sick days a year; any unused days carry over and then can be cashed in at retirement. The goal of these policies was once a way to compensate for lower salaries, but now that base salaries have largely caught up—starting pay for a first year teacher with a bachelor's degree in Chicago was $49,000 this school year—perhaps it's time to rethink these benefits.

If a teacher can qualify for this payout by taking an average of nine of her 10 sick leave days, clearly this benefit is having little effect on encouraging better attendance. Perhaps a wiser approach would be to reward only those teachers who at the end of each school year are absent less than three days. Then such a bonus would in fact be a true reward for good attendance. Furthermore, such a policy supports the goal that teachers, not substitutes, are in front of a classroom for the most possible days in the school year.

As the union pointed out, the way the current system is structured "puts teachers in a Catch 22—if they use too many sick days they are given low ratings for bad attendance and if they accumulate too many they are falsely characterized as 'greedy' and 'abusing the system.'" 

Teacher attendance is typically addressed through better managerial practice. While policies can be used to support these efforts, those that reward any and all unused leave days send the wrong message, especially in tough economic times. 

Emily Cohen