Nassau and Suffolk have made some of the largest payouts to employees for their unused sick and vacation days. NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa and Newsday politics reporter Scott Eidler discuss.   Credit: Newsday Studio

After Keechant Sewell left the Nassau County Police Department last year to become commissioner of the New York Police Department, the county paid her $550,000 for unused sick and vacation time over her 24 years of service.

Stuart Cameron, the acting Suffolk County police commissioner, retired in 2022 and was paid more than $455,000 for unused days that accrued during his nearly 37 years on the force. He's now police commissioner for the Village of Old Westbury.

And soon after John Wighaus, president of the Nassau Detectives Association Inc., retired from his union post in 2022, the county paid him $560,000 for days he had never taken during his 33 years in law enforcement and union leadership.

These were some of the largest payouts that Nassau and Suffolk counties made to more than 1,700 employees who left last year with unused sick and vacation days.

The lion's share of the payouts went to members of police unions and police commissioners, according to county records obtained by Newsday.

Bound by law and contractual obligations, the counties have been making the payouts for years.

Individual payouts last year ranged from under $10 to more than $450,000 in Suffolk, and over $500,000 in Nassau.

Nassau spent a total of $43.6 million on termination pay in 2022, compared with $37.5 million in 2021.

Suffolk spent $42.1 million in 2022, compared with $65.8 million in 2021.

Experts question whether the counties are merely kicking the recurring expenses down a road with no end in sight.

David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor and expert in state and local finance, said that in approving such compensation the “idea is that politicians can say things like, ‘We're holding down costs,' but are, in effect, legally obligating themselves to pay these payouts [until] the end of time for people.”

“The real cost is different from the thing they’re telling the taxpayer,” Schleicher told Newsday.

Officials in both counties said they've been making concerted efforts to reduce the cost of payouts, which is expected to total more than $40 million in 2023 in each county, according to budget officials. 

In Nassau, officials said a new contract with the Police Benevolent Association, the county's largest police union, and recent contracts with the detectives and superior officers unions reduced the maximum payouts officers can receive.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman told Newsday he expects the cost of payouts to decline over time.

“We're keeping a close eye on it," he said. 

Officials in Suffolk cited a spike in the number of police officers who departed county service over the last decade.

In 2013, when the county paid out $18 million, 64 officers retired or left the force. Last year, 150 officers departed, records show.

"Sworn police officers have the largest impact on termination pay," county spokeswoman Nicole Russo told Newsday.

William Silva, former commanding officer of Suffolk's Fifth Precinct in Patchogue, retired in January 2022 with a payout of more than $403,000 for sick and vacation time built up during his 34-year career. 

“It's a lot of saved time; I didn't call in sick as much,” Silva, 58 of Mount Sinai, said in an interview.

"I enjoyed going to work every day of my 37 years," Silva said.

“The biggest reward is not the payout at the end," he said. "The biggest reward — and I'm speaking for all officers — is the reward of working for the people of Suffolk County and making sure they were safe.”

The cost of termination payouts by Nassau and Suffolk counties has varied over the years, rising in years when there were more retirements. That was the case in 2020 in Nassau and in 2021 in Suffolk as employees left during the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows.

The counties have spent a total of more than $830 million on termination over the past 10 years, according to a Newsday analysis of county records.

Current county employees will be due a total of $909 million as they leave over the next several decades, according to county budget projections.

Suffolk Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) remarked that the six-figure payments to individuals "just jump out at you … $200, $300, $400G … " 

Nonetheless, there's a "value to having employees that don't use their sick time, because you're not filling in other shifts on overtime," McCaffrey told Newsday.

"Over the course of time, how much have [workers] saved the county by coming to work and not having to fill a vacancy on overtime?" asked McCaffrey, who also serves as the president of Teamsters Local 707, which represents freight drivers, ambulance drivers and Off-Track Betting employees in the region. 

"It's hard to put a number on what the real cost is, and how much they've saved by not using their contractually bargained-for, paid time off," McCaffrey said.

Nassau Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) called the high payout costs “alarming."

Bynoe continued: "It’s taxpayer money and we're the fiduciaries, and we have the responsibility to make sure we’re using taxpayer money in the most responsible manner."

Payouts in Nassau and Suffolk reflect the terms of lucrative labor deals that county unions, particularly those representing police, struck with county administrations dating back several decades.

Richard Auxier, a senior policy associate with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., said governments have engaged in a “balancing act” with public employee unions.

To attract employees to the public sector, where salaries often are less than in private industry, governments made concessions to ensure they could provide "a high quality of public service,” Auxier told Newsday.

Now, municipalities are reckoning with having to “pay those bills, while simultaneously trying to attract the next generation of employees,” Auxier said.

Some Nassau and Suffolk employees, upon leaving government service, are collecting not only big termination payouts, but also six-figure annual pensions and six-figure salaries in new jobs, records show.

The Village of Old Westbury pays Cameron $270,000 in salary. He also draws a $15,813 monthly pension from New York State, according to the state comptroller's office.

Sewell, the former Nassau chief of detectives, earned $243,171 in 2022 as NYPD commissioner. She has a monthly pension of $9,292, according to the state comptroller's office.

Sewell, Wighaus and other members of law enforcement who were among the top five recipients of termination pay in each county did not respond to requests for comment.

In comments to Newsday, Cameron did not address the size of his payment.

But Cameron said: “It was an extraordinary honor and privilege to have served the great people of Suffolk County for almost 37 years. It is my sincere hope that my service improved the quality of life for all county residents.” 

Bills for future payouts in Nassau will at least be partially controlled as a result of the county’s new contract with the PBA, officials said.

Under the previous contract, police officers could receive termination pay that was twice their base salary.

For employees hired after the PBA contract was executed in February, the cap is 1½ times.

In recent contracts, caps for the Superior Officers Association and Detectives Association Inc. fell to 1½ times base salary, compared with 1¾ times under previous agreements.

Employees in those two unions still can accrue 90 vacation days, 550 sick days paid out at 50%, and 400 hours of "comp time," according to the Nassau County Comptroller's Office.

In Suffolk, there is no cap on termination pay for members of the county PBA. They can be paid for 300 sick days and 120 vacation days, according to Suffolk County Legislature's Budget Review Office. 

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state board that controls the county's finances, said the new caps in Nassau “are going to prevent [termination pay] from growing to the rate it has.”

NIFA approved the PBA contract last month

But Barsky told Newsday it will take decades to realize substantial reductions, since the caps cover new hires who aren't likely to retire for several decades.

"People who have been with the county for 30 years, they may have been accruing termination pay from back when they were making $30,000,” Barsky said. “They could be making $100,000 today, and they're going to get paid out all that time over 30 years, at $100,000."

Nassau also is negotiating new contracts with the Civil Service Employees Association, the county's largest public employee union, and the Nassau Sheriff Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

Nonunion employees in both Nassau and Suffolk also are eligible for termination payouts, and in 2018 the Nassau County Legislature voted to reduce the number of days they can cash out upon retirement.

The employees, who are political appointees, can cash out up to 30 sick and 30 vacation days when they leave county service, compared with a maximum of 175 sick days and 75 vacation days allowed before the legislation was enacted.

The reduction came after a 2018 Newsday report that showed Nassau had paid a total of $2.5 million to 75 political appointees who departed after former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, succeeded Republican Edward Mangano in 2018.

Nonunion employees in Nassau who were hired before August 2014 are entitled to termination pay for up to 200 unused sick days and 90 unused vacation days.

After Keechant Sewell left the Nassau County Police Department last year to become commissioner of the New York Police Department, the county paid her $550,000 for unused sick and vacation time over her 24 years of service.

Stuart Cameron, the acting Suffolk County police commissioner, retired in 2022 and was paid more than $455,000 for unused days that accrued during his nearly 37 years on the force. He's now police commissioner for the Village of Old Westbury.

And soon after John Wighaus, president of the Nassau Detectives Association Inc., retired from his union post in 2022, the county paid him $560,000 for days he had never taken during his 33 years in law enforcement and union leadership.

These were some of the largest payouts that Nassau and Suffolk counties made to more than 1,700 employees who left last year with unused sick and vacation days.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Nassau and Suffolk counties made termination payouts, some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, to more than 1,700 employees who left county service in 2022 with unused sick and vacation days.
  • The lion's share of the payouts went to members of police unions and police commissioners, according to county records obtained by Newsday.
  • Individual payouts last year ranged from under $10 to more than $450,000 in Suffolk and over $500,000 in Nassau.

The lion's share of the payouts went to members of police unions and police commissioners, according to county records obtained by Newsday.

Bound by law and contractual obligations, the counties have been making the payouts for years.

Individual payouts last year ranged from under $10 to more than $450,000 in Suffolk, and over $500,000 in Nassau.

Nassau spent a total of $43.6 million on termination pay in 2022, compared with $37.5 million in 2021.

Suffolk spent $42.1 million in 2022, compared with $65.8 million in 2021.

Experts question whether the counties are merely kicking the recurring expenses down a road with no end in sight.

David Schleicher, a Yale Law School professor and expert in state and local finance, said that in approving such compensation the “idea is that politicians can say things like, ‘We're holding down costs,' but are, in effect, legally obligating themselves to pay these payouts [until] the end of time for people.”

“The real cost is different from the thing they’re telling the taxpayer,” Schleicher told Newsday.

Officials in both counties said they've been making concerted efforts to reduce the cost of payouts, which is expected to total more than $40 million in 2023 in each county, according to budget officials. 

In Nassau, officials said a new contract with the Police Benevolent Association, the county's largest police union, and recent contracts with the detectives and superior officers unions reduced the maximum payouts officers can receive.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman told Newsday he expects the cost of payouts to decline over time.

“We're keeping a close eye on it," he said. 

Officials in Suffolk cited a spike in the number of police officers who departed county service over the last decade.

In 2013, when the county paid out $18 million, 64 officers retired or left the force. Last year, 150 officers departed, records show.

"Sworn police officers have the largest impact on termination pay," county spokeswoman Nicole Russo told Newsday.

William Silva, former commanding officer of Suffolk's Fifth Precinct in Patchogue, retired in January 2022 with a payout of more than $403,000 for sick and vacation time built up during his 34-year career. 

“It's a lot of saved time; I didn't call in sick as much,” Silva, 58 of Mount Sinai, said in an interview.

"I enjoyed going to work every day of my 37 years," Silva said.

“The biggest reward is not the payout at the end," he said. "The biggest reward — and I'm speaking for all officers — is the reward of working for the people of Suffolk County and making sure they were safe.”

Higher payouts ‘just jump out at you’

The cost of termination payouts by Nassau and Suffolk counties has varied over the years, rising in years when there were more retirements. That was the case in 2020 in Nassau and in 2021 in Suffolk as employees left during the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows.

The counties have spent a total of more than $830 million on termination over the past 10 years, according to a Newsday analysis of county records.

Current county employees will be due a total of $909 million as they leave over the next several decades, according to county budget projections.

Suffolk Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) remarked that the six-figure payments to individuals "just jump out at you … $200, $300, $400G … " 

Nonetheless, there's a "value to having employees that don't use their sick time, because you're not filling in other shifts on overtime," McCaffrey told Newsday.

"Over the course of time, how much have [workers] saved the county by coming to work and not having to fill a vacancy on overtime?" asked McCaffrey, who also serves as the president of Teamsters Local 707, which represents freight drivers, ambulance drivers and Off-Track Betting employees in the region. 

"It's hard to put a number on what the real cost is, and how much they've saved by not using their contractually bargained-for, paid time off," McCaffrey said.

Nassau Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) called the high payout costs “alarming."

Bynoe continued: "It’s taxpayer money and we're the fiduciaries, and we have the responsibility to make sure we’re using taxpayer money in the most responsible manner."

A 'balancing act'

Payouts in Nassau and Suffolk reflect the terms of lucrative labor deals that county unions, particularly those representing police, struck with county administrations dating back several decades.

Richard Auxier, a senior policy associate with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., said governments have engaged in a “balancing act” with public employee unions.

To attract employees to the public sector, where salaries often are less than in private industry, governments made concessions to ensure they could provide "a high quality of public service,” Auxier told Newsday.

Now, municipalities are reckoning with having to “pay those bills, while simultaneously trying to attract the next generation of employees,” Auxier said.

Some Nassau and Suffolk employees, upon leaving government service, are collecting not only big termination payouts, but also six-figure annual pensions and six-figure salaries in new jobs, records show.

The Village of Old Westbury pays Cameron $270,000 in salary. He also draws a $15,813 monthly pension from New York State, according to the state comptroller's office.

Sewell, the former Nassau chief of detectives, earned $243,171 in 2022 as NYPD commissioner. She has a monthly pension of $9,292, according to the state comptroller's office.

Sewell, Wighaus and other members of law enforcement who were among the top five recipients of termination pay in each county did not respond to requests for comment.

In comments to Newsday, Cameron did not address the size of his payment.

But Cameron said: “It was an extraordinary honor and privilege to have served the great people of Suffolk County for almost 37 years. It is my sincere hope that my service improved the quality of life for all county residents.” 

Attempts to curb costs

Bills for future payouts in Nassau will at least be partially controlled as a result of the county’s new contract with the PBA, officials said.

Under the previous contract, police officers could receive termination pay that was twice their base salary.

For employees hired after the PBA contract was executed in February, the cap is 1½ times.

In recent contracts, caps for the Superior Officers Association and Detectives Association Inc. fell to 1½ times base salary, compared with 1¾ times under previous agreements.

Employees in those two unions still can accrue 90 vacation days, 550 sick days paid out at 50%, and 400 hours of "comp time," according to the Nassau County Comptroller's Office.

In Suffolk, there is no cap on termination pay for members of the county PBA. They can be paid for 300 sick days and 120 vacation days, according to Suffolk County Legislature's Budget Review Office. 

Adam Barsky, chairman of the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, a state board that controls the county's finances, said the new caps in Nassau “are going to prevent [termination pay] from growing to the rate it has.”

NIFA approved the PBA contract last month

But Barsky told Newsday it will take decades to realize substantial reductions, since the caps cover new hires who aren't likely to retire for several decades.

"People who have been with the county for 30 years, they may have been accruing termination pay from back when they were making $30,000,” Barsky said. “They could be making $100,000 today, and they're going to get paid out all that time over 30 years, at $100,000."

Nassau also is negotiating new contracts with the Civil Service Employees Association, the county's largest public employee union, and the Nassau Sheriff Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

Nonunion employees in both Nassau and Suffolk also are eligible for termination payouts, and in 2018 the Nassau County Legislature voted to reduce the number of days they can cash out upon retirement.

The employees, who are political appointees, can cash out up to 30 sick and 30 vacation days when they leave county service, compared with a maximum of 175 sick days and 75 vacation days allowed before the legislation was enacted.

The reduction came after a 2018 Newsday report that showed Nassau had paid a total of $2.5 million to 75 political appointees who departed after former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, succeeded Republican Edward Mangano in 2018.

Nonunion employees in Nassau who were hired before August 2014 are entitled to termination pay for up to 200 unused sick days and 90 unused vacation days.

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