Sonoma County government employees who lost their homes in the October wildfires could soon be able to cash out thousands of dollars’ worth of unused vacation time to help ease their unexpected financial burden.
Under a proposal the Board of Supervisors will consider Tuesday, county staff members would be allowed to request a one-time payment of up to $10,000 from their accrued vacation hours. Some 156 employees — about 4 percent of the county workforce — lost their primary homes or had their residences rendered uninhabitable by the fires.
“What we’re trying to do is find a way that increases people’s flexibility who are under complete duress,” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman. “We’re trying to be able to support people as not just a county in recovery, but as an employer.”
But workers wouldn’t be able to convert all their unused vacation time into one lump sum: The proposal would require employees to keep at least 40 hours of vacation time on the books. That means fire-affected staff members with less than 40 hours can’t cash out, but human resources director Christina Cramer said most of the 156 employees would still qualify.
“Think of your vacation hours as a personal safety net, in case you become seriously ill or if something comes up, so we just wanted to make sure employees ... didn’t completely deplete their hours,” Cramer said. “Even though we have generous accruals, it takes some time.”
If all 156 employees take advantage of the opportunity, it would cost the county about $625,200. Departments should be able to absorb the cost in their existing budgets, according to human resources staff.
Employees would need to request the one-time payment in writing by Feb. 26, and the county would issue payments April 4 if supervisors approve the plan Tuesday.
Labor leaders have so far been receptive to the proposal.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Joel Evans-Fudem, president of the Sonoma County chapter of SEIU Local 1021, the county’s largest union. “It allows the SEIU-represented employees that might have lots of accrued vacation and not really enough money at the moment to decide whether they’d rather have time off to deal with their fire loss or one-time income right now that they can spend.”
Evans-Fudem said 67 employees represented by his union would be eligible for the county’s plan and 42 of them have enough vacation hours to actually use the option.
The county already offers a program during government-declared disasters through which employees can donate their vacation hours to colleagues affected by the fires for use when they run out of time-off. But those affected by the fires four months ago are discovering they need even more financial help as they find new homes, replace property they lost and manage the numerous other complexities associated with rebuilding their lives, according to county staff.
Union leaders learned of the vacation time proposal from county officials just a few weeks ago and didn’t have any objections or see a need for formal discussions about the matter, Evans-Fudem said.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.