Water agency paid nearly $1M in severance

January 14, 2011 4:17:36 AM PST
Many workers at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District are collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance pay despite leaving their jobs voluntarily.

The board is now trying change the decades old practice of awarding almost every employee severance pay. However, the department's 2,000 workers won't give up the perk without a fight.

Severance pay is typically reserved for people whose jobs are eliminated through no fault or decision of their own. However, at the agency that handles storm and waste water in Cook County, workers have been getting a day of pay for every year served up to a month. For most, it's an extra $10,000 to $15,000.

Board members, who met behind closed doors Thursday, said they didn't know employees were being offered all that cash on their way out the door.

"I've been here 22 years -- and even as an employee out of college for three years, I never know about this perk," said Terry O'Brien, Water Reclamation Board president.

O'Brien said he found out about the practice 10 months ago. At the end of 2010, the board voted to eliminate the severance pay package, which led to a flood of water reclamation employees leaving the agency before the perk was eliminated in 2011. The 74 employees who quit or retired in the final months of 2010 collected a total of $863,706 in severance pay. That does not include the $1.5 million collected by cashing in unused sick days an comp time.

"This may have been a benefit to recruit and retain highly qualified employees. There is no call for that now," said Debra Shore, water reclamation district commissioner.

Many of the water reclamation district's remaining employees have filed suit because, they say, severance pay is promised to them right in the employee handbook. Therefore, they say, board members can't simply take it away.

The water reclamation district has trimmed its staff from 3,000 to 2,000 employees in the last 20 years and enjoys a triple-a bond rating at a time when many government agencies have severely unbalanced budgets. The severance pay perk has been on the books since the 1960s. How come no one noticed it?

"This for whatever reason never popped on our radar screen," said O'Brien. "Well, when times are good, nobody thinks about those things."

"Well, when people retire I never ask or even looked at their termination pay," said Frank Avila, water reclamation district commissioner.