"You can't force people to take time off. I've never been able to do that in my time as a manager," said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state Correctional Health Care Services department, which provides prison medical care.
But in the private sector, employers cap vacation accruals and make workers take their time off before they can accumulate more.
Twenty-seven people, including 19 prison doctors and dentists, got checks for more than $250,000, and some had more than 500 unused days off on the books when they retired. That's enough money to reserve a seat on British billionaire Richard Branson's future Virgin Galactic space flights or book a three-day stay at the $65,000-a-night Royal Penthouse Suite at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva, the world's most expensive hotel.
Topping the list was Napa State Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Gertrudis Agcaoili, who retired after 33 years with 642 days of accrued vacation and comp time. It cost taxpayers nearly $609,000.
How did she manage to bank so much time?
"It's none of your business," Agcaoili said in a brief telephone interview. "I deserve all of it. I worked very hard."
A representative for the Department of State Hospitals, Wanda Yepez, wouldn't say how Agcaoili accrued so much time.
"The demands of 24-hour hospital staffing often (make it) difficult for employees to be absent from the workplace in sufficient hours to maintain vacation balances below" 80 days, Yepez wrote in an email. Department records showed Agcaoili took only about two-and-a-half weeks of vacation in the five years before she retired, Yepez wrote.
A veteran observer of government spending said six-figure payouts like Agcaoili's can be crippling and called on the state to revise its personnel policies.
"It's an unfunded liability and a burden on the taxpayer," said Thomas Schatz, executive director of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group. "California needs to look very closely at it. They have to enforce the 80-day limit."
Payouts in state government spiked in 2010, topping $300 million, data shows.
Part of the reason is that when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered workers to take as many as three unpaid days off a month in 2009 and 2010, saying it would reduce costs by $1.66 billion, they were still allowed to accrue vacation at their normal rate. That can be as high as 15 hours a month for rank-and-file workers and 16 hours for managers.
But vacation balances climbed even higher because employees were required to take furlough days first, said Lynelle Jolley, who retired last week as the spokeswoman for the Human Resources Department.
When furloughs were enacted, "we knew leave balances went up," she said.
Some workers with critical jobs, like Highway Patrol officers, firefighters and prison guards, are sometimes restricted from taking time off.
"We have to have coverage 24 hours a day," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Forestry and Fire. The department paid $40 million for unused time during the three years.
A lot of that time, Upton said, came from the past decade when California experienced 11 of the 20 largest fires in state history.
Three of its retirees topped payouts of $250,000 each, including an administrator, Jay Wickizer, who was paid for 514 vacation days. His job, Upton said, was to restore fire scenes.
But not all employees who were paid for hundreds of vacation hours had critical public safety jobs.
The person with the highest amount of unused vacation during the three-year period analyzed was Seymour Goldstone, a research specialist who retired from the state energy commission in 2010 with 539 vacation days. Goldstone couldn't be reached; commission spokesman Adam Gottlieb could not immediately explain how the time was accrued.
At state prisons, unused time cost $293 million over the three years analyzed and included time from both corrections officers and health care providers.
Kincaid said many of those professionals were in high demand because of court-ordered improvements to the care provided to inmates. "Some of them worked 20 to 30 years when there were massive vacancies and then they cashed out," she said.
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