By voting against reconsideration, senators reaffirmed support Friday for legislation extending until 2016 a program where any long-time V.I. Government employee will be able to take off two years from work with the government paying health insurance and retirement for the jobs that are not being performed.
After the vote, Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said he “understand(s) what it looks like,” but said the measure should ultimately save money and help bolster the ailing Government Employee Retirement System.
“This was set up by the Economic Stabilization Act of 2011, and people have been asking us about this, because it sunsets in October,” Malone said. By encouraging people to take a leave of absence, the government can temporarily save the cost of their salaries, which is much larger than the pension and health insurance contributions, he said.
“I don’t like some aspects of this, but if we don’t make (leave) available this way, I’m concerned the governor is planning more layoffs,” Malone said, suggesting that if employees took advantage of this program, layoffs would be less likely.
“It is also only about a very small number of people. I think there are only about four people or so who have actually taken advantage of this,” Malone said.
Paying pension contributions also helps bolster the pension fund, which he said plays a major role in the V.I. Economy by sending out retirement checks every month.
Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen proposed the measure as an amendment to the last bill being considered Thursday – a bill from Sen. Craig Barshinger that changes the way the time for retired government employees collecting their pensions is calculated when they return to government jobs after retirement.
Hansen’s amendment makes the terms of an emergency budget act passed in 2011 more generous and obligates the government to pay health insurance and pension contributions for people who are not actually working for the government.
Act 7261, signed into law in July 2011, enacted government pay cuts, retirement incentives and other emergency budget items aimed at reducing the need for layoffs during a budget crisis. (See related links below)
It stipulated that any employee who has accumulated five or more years of government service may take up to two years, but not less than one year of voluntary leave without pay “for any purpose whatsoever without losing seniority and shall have the right to return to his employment.”
The law – passed as a temporary, emergency measure – created an incentive for employees to take a leave of absence in order to reduce involuntary layoffs due to budget constraints. To that end, the 2011 law required employees taking advantage of this benefit giveaway to “return to work on or before October 1, 2013.”
Hansen’s amendment extends this automatic two-year leave with government-paid benefits until Oct. 1, 2016. But any employee who takes advantage of the offer will be off the government payroll for the duration.
The Senate approved Hansen’s giveaway amendment without objection, and the Senate approved the bill as amended, 14 to 0, with Sen. Donald Cole absent.
On Friday, Barshinger moved to have the bill reconsidered, saying it did not appear to be a purely housekeeping measure because it obligates the government to make an unknown dollar amount in pension and health insurance payments for nonworking employees.
Eight votes were needed to reconsider the matter, but it failed on a 7 to 7 vote. Voting against reconsideration were Hansen, Malone Sens. Judi Buckley, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly, Clarence Payne, Tregenza Roach and Sammuel Sanes.
Voting for reconsideration were Barshinger, Sens. Diane Capehart, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson, Terrence “Positive” Nelson and Janette Millin Young.
Sen. Donald Cole was absent.