USF staff member struggles with new sick leave policy

Office of Graduate Studies Fiscal and Business Specialist Theresa Freeman, a USF employee of 16 years, was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer in 2013. She received surgery to remove it in 2014 as well as subsequent treatments, using up all of her sick leave and sick leave donated to her by coworkers through the Donated Sick Leave Program (DSLP).

In August of this year, Freeman received terrible news: her cancer was back. She didn’t have much time to replenish her sick leave and the DSLP had been terminated in January. 

Susan Shannon, president of the USF branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), spoke with Freeman, whose sick leave ran out Oct. 31. She said Freeman has had to use money from a GoFundMe campaign to pay the university to extend her sick leave through the current pay period. Shannon didn’t ask how much it had cost Freeman.

Shannon said leave ensures continuation of benefits, which keeps people employed at the university when they need to miss days. Shannon said running out of sick leave means “(Freeman) has no job,” which endangers her access to a salary and health insurance. 

It is not often that employees exhaust their sick leave. According to the Center for American Progress, “On average, workers who are covered take 3.9 days per year for illness and 1.3 days to care for sick family members, while workers without sick days take an average of 3 days per year.”

The AFSCME said 134 employees have offered the donation of 3,854 hours to Freeman. The hours are those that employees are not using and would not receive total compensation for upon leaving USF. 

According to the university’s Division of Human Resources, employees can receive monetary compensation for unused sick leave hours up to a limit, so long as the hours meet certain criteria, when they leave the university.

“It all just goes to waste,” Shannon said. “It’s our earned benefits that now we have no access to, basically.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “There are no federal legal requirements for paid sick leave.”

According to USF Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman, “The decision to eliminate the (DSLP) program was made as part of collective bargaining negotiations in 2014.

“At that time, the (AFSCME) agreed to remove the program. Phasing out the donated sick leave program significantly reduced over $1 million per year of financial liability for the university and Florida’s taxpayers.”

When AFSCME went to the bargaining table with USF last November, Shannon said, one of the goals was to find a way to make the DSLP work, financially. She said the loss of the program came with a choice: after gaining other things they’d been fighting for, the AFSCME was told by the university that keeping the DSLP would require going back and redoing negotiations from scratch. Instead, the program was disbanded, something USF said was due to cost. Shannon attributes the disintegration of the DSLP to USF’s new business model.

“I believe that it is a solvable problem, of course,” Shannon said. “I mean, it’s a university, somebody’s got to be able to figure this out.”

Across the U.S., the cost of paid sick leave, however, is a small portion of the larger cost of employee benefits.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2012, “(84) percent of private industry workers received vacation, holiday, or personal leave. (72) percent of workers received both paid holidays and paid vacations, and 61 percent were covered by sick leave plans. For employers, the cost for providing these benefits to employees was $1.98 per hour worked, and these benefits made up 6.9 percent of total compensation.”

Of that $1.98, 25 cents are attributed to paid sick leave. Other contributors are paid vacation and holiday hours, and while these numbers have changed from 1992 to 2012, the percentage attributed to paid sick leave has remained constant at 0.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Shannon said the AFSCME plans to address this issue in its meeting with the university Wednesday at 10 a.m. There still is a way of sharing sick leave at USF, but it is a slightly different program called the employee Sick Leave Pool (SLP), Adam Freeman said. 

In order to be eligible for the SLP, a USF staff member must have, at minimum, one year of continuous employment where they remained in good standing, a high enough performance rating and a minimum sick leave balance of 72 hours for full-time employees. Additionally, they must have applied for membership during open enrollment, contributed a set number of hours to the pool and contributed hours several times to replenish the pool.

Temporary employees at USF are not eligible for the SLP. The open enrollment period opens each year in April. 

According to the university’s website, the SLP “allows members to contribute hours from their accrued sick leave to a central pool that members can draw upon to remain in a paid status for a specified period of time due to a serious, short-term medical condition after exhausting their own leave.”

Though the pool covers “serious, short-term medical condition,” Freeman’s condition is long-term. She is currently at risk of losing her status as an employee on paid leave, which means she is at risk of losing her salary and benefits. 

The SLP allows members to use a maximum of 320 hours over the course of 12 months, while the DSLP had no cap on the number of hours donation recipients could use. Freeman was not a member of the SLP, the reason for which Shannon said she doesn’t know and has been a major criticism.

“It shouldn’t be a death sentence for her failure to join the pool,” Shannon said. “We should still be able to help her.”

The press release contained a petition Shannon said USF’s branch of AFSCME sent to the university leadership.

“We ask USF to reconsider its policy not to allow sick leave donation between employees. We ask USF to allow these people to help Theresa in her time of need, and to work with us to create a system where any USF employee in this situation would be allowed to receive donations of sick leave from their coworkers,” AFSCME said in the release. 

Shannon stresses the importance of university staff, saying without them there would be no classes in the system, no registration and a dirtier campus. 

“We’re the invisible people at the university,” Shannon said. “Nothing would function without us.”