The highest-paid person at the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in 2021 wasn’t an administrator or manager or doctor, it was a member of the IT staff.
Debra Johnson retired from her position as an IT Analyst in October of last year and received a payout of unused vacation time of nearly $550,000, an amount equal to five times her annual salary, according to data from the Comptroller’s Office, catapulting her to the 11th highest paid state employee for 2021.
The reason? Ongoing payments for damages as part of the SEBAC v. Rowland class-action lawsuit settled seven years ago.
It’s the latest in the ongoing story of the lawsuit, which began its protracted existence in 2003. Plaintiffs in the case argued that then-Gov. John Rowland had overseen the layoffs of thousands of state employees, not to curb budgetary concerns but to retaliate against the state employee unions.
After more than a decade, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration chose to settle the suit. The State Attorney General at the time, George Jepsen, argued that settling would keep cost to the state much lower than they would be if the case made it to court.
Johnson is far from the only person to have received such payments since the settlement, though she is among those who received the largest amount.
According to data compiled by the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office, the state has so far paid just under $13 million in vacation disbursements alone since 2016, accounting for about 336 individuals who have left public service in that time.
Some of these payments account for very little, the lowest coming in at under a dollar, but most include sums in the lower five figures. Less than 10%, or about 30 people so far, have received six figure sums, according to data compiled through the state’s open data website.
The payments themselves are not new. They were part of the original settlement agreement, which granted economic damages to class members based on the type and degree of impact their layoff, demotion, or transfer caused. According to the law firm handling the settlement, the state identified about 2,400 people eligible to receive these damages.
As part of that agreement, damages could be paid either in cash payments (for those no longer under state employment) or in vacation time (for those who were). That vacation time would never expire and could either be used by the employee during their remaining time with the state or could be paid out upon their departure. It would also increase in value based on their current rate of pay.
In the initial report provided to the General Assembly, economic damages which took the form of vacation pay were estimated to cost the state roughly $83 million over four years. That estimate, however, assumes that the vacation time would either be used or paid out within that period and would not accrue additional value by those who remained under state employ past 2019, receiving regular raises.
The report also notes that there could be additional costs associated with the vacation time, as departments would be required to cover the days those employees were granted off, and would likely need to use overtime pay to do so. How much of the awarded vacation time was utilized by the recipients, rather than held for future disbursements, cannot be confirmed by the data provided.
Calculating the actual cost of damages to the state (and thus, to taxpayers) has never been easy to pin down.
Early reporting by the Hartford Courant pointed out how complex the math became when determining the value of an individual employee’s settlement would be. It took into account actual lost wages but also included estimates of potential raises they might have received, as well as the amount their state pension might have increased if they had remained in their original position for longer.
Early state estimates of the eventual total cost ran between $100-125 million. The final number, it seems, won’t be known until the last class member leaves public service.