AUGUSTA, Maine — A new policy instituted by Gov. Paul LePage in February substantially increased paid vacation time for 54 political appointees and governor’s office staff, by crediting prior, relevant work experience into how their time is accrued.
For example, a political appointee employed by the state government for three years, but who had 12 years of relevant prior experience outside the state, will now earn vacation time as if he or she had been employed by the state for 15 years.
Under the new policy, each of the 54 beneficiaries received an average of 62 hours of extra vacation time — about eight days —- for every year of service in the LePage administration, according to State Controller Douglas Cotnoir.
Of the 54 beneficiaries of the policy, 36 were hired by LePage from outside state government, while 18 were state workers when LePage took office in 2011. The 54 recipients were credited the extra time as a lump sum addition to their benefits.
State finance officials would not release the names of those who received the extra time off, pending a review of confidentiality rules. The policy change was confirmed this week after a February memo outlining the changes, sent only to the affected employees, was obtained by the Bangor Daily News.
In a larger context, this policy change reflects LePage’s philosophical approach to managing government, shaped by his years in the private sector, where bestowing benefits based on prior experience is a more common, accepted practice.
That CEO-style approach to government, however, often riles organized labor and LePage’s political opponents, which is the case with this policy. They view this policy change as akin to political patronage for LePage’s close government allies, without recognizing the economic struggles of average Mainers.
In addition to the retroactive vacation time, this new policy — instituted unilaterally by the governor — also lets political appointees and LePage staff members continue to earn vacation time faster than comparably tenured state workers.
Normally, state employees earn vacation time at a rate commensurate with the amount of time they’ve worked in state government. New employees earn eight hours of vacation time per month, while workers with 20 years of experience or more earn 16 hours per month.
Executive branch officials and LePage said the new policy is a way to ensure the state can recruit and retain the best employees at these appointed and staff positions.
“I’m interested in hiring good people, not political hacks,” said LePage in a written comment to the BDN. “Not only do we have to strengthen our ability to recruit and retain good employees from the private sector, but we also have to compete against the Legislature, which offers higher pay and better benefits. Providing vacation accrual is just one tool in our effort to seek parity with the pay and benefits afforded to other state employees.”
Political appointees include commissioners, bureau directors and other high-level executive branch staff. They, along with governor’s office employees, serve at the pleasure of the governor. However, not every current political appointee was brought in by LePage.
A total of 155 high-level employees — 117 political appointees, and 38 members of the governor’s staff — were eligible for the vacation time boost, but only about half of them were hired or appointed by LePage from outside state government.
The rest were either already in their appointed positions, or were promoted into them from elsewhere inside state government.
Regardless of when the appointees came to their jobs, the leader of the union that represents rank-and-file state workers said the additional vacation time amounts to a golden parachute for LePage appointees.
“It’s an insult to the [state employees] who work hard every day, who are also highly qualified for the job they do,” said Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association.
LePage administration officials say the change in policy reflects ongoing efforts to improve “workforce development” in the executive branch, along with initiatives such as internship programs, cross-training within departments and increased job flexibility.
Joyce Oreskovich, the state’s director of human resources, said she developed the vacation policy change last year when LePage asked for ways to close the gap between executive branch employees and other government workers — specifically legislative staff — who often earn higher wages.
Last year, a special panel convened by the governor — consisting of commissioners and state finance department staff — found that legislative staff earn between 17 percent and 25 percent more than comparable workers in the executive branch.
This year, with the Democrat-controlled Legislature’s approval, LePage gave 5 percent raises to all 117 political appointees outside the governor’s office to close that wage gap.
Compensation for executive officials has been an issue for LePage since he was elected in 2010. During his transition into office, the governor said he was having trouble hiring Cabinet posts and other appointed positions because the jobs did not pay enough.
While political appointees in the executive branch may earn less than their legislative or private sector counterparts, their salary compared to statewide averages paints a different picture. Most commissioners can earn up to $103,000 per year, and the median pay for deputy commissioners is $88,000. The average head of a bureau earns $77,500.
The median wage in Maine is $33,400, according to the state Center for Workforce Research and Information.
Cotnoir, the state controller, said vacation time is capped to prevent long-serving executive branch employees from banking more than 10 weeks of vacation time annually. Most state workers, he said, can’t bank more than eight weeks.
The average employee, he said, uses their vacation time, rather than holding it. He called the likelihood that an appointee or staffer would cash out a huge check — the alleged golden parachute — when they leave state government would be low.
“If the vacation time is accrued, and folks are actually using it, there’s absolutely no cost to the state,” he said.
LePage’s Democratic opponent in this year’s governor’s race, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, described the new policy as hypocritical. He said he was “outraged” at the policy change, which he called a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Gov. LePage has vetoed an increase in the minimum wage for hard working people. He’s denied health care to 70,000 Mainers, including 3,000 veterans. Five times. He’s raided the pensions of state workers. … He’s tried to roll back child labor laws and worker protections,” Michaud said in a written statement. “But when it comes to his political appointees, he’s a lot more generous.”
Eliot Cutler, the independent candidate for governor, also criticized the policy change in a statement Wednesday morning.
“If the new policy is a good idea it should be a good idea for every state employee not just political employees,” he said. “It’s time for Governor LePage to stop playing political favorites.”
Richard Rosen, the state’s finance commissioner, said that while he understood people are sensitive about government employees’ salaries, the vacation policy change was a good one.
“If you look at it from the point of view of just the way to manage a workplace, and an organization of 13,000 people, we’re finding that over time the disparity and the parity concerns need to be addressed,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.