Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Employees warm up to state buyouts

Plan includes cash, college, health care By JENNIFER BROOKS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • May 20, 2008 A fat cash payout, extended health benefits and free college tuition are part of the buyout deal the state plans to offer to its workers this summer as Gov. Phil Bredesen tries to balance the state's budget. New details released Monday about the buyouts — and a guarantee from the state that it would not consider employee layoffs until the state legislature returns in January — seemed to reassure state employees and lawmakers. "We're very pleased," Zoyle Jones, president of the Tennessee State Employees Association, said Monday after the governor, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and state finance officials emerged from a closed-door meeting with new details about the buyout package. "The plan as we have seen it today is a very generous plan." The $50 million buyout will offer employees four months' salary, plus an additional cash incentive equal to $500 per year for every year they've worked for the state. Workers who take the buyout offer also will be offered a six-month extension of their state health coverage, as well as two years' free college tuition at any public college or university in the state. The average payout per employee would range from $23,459 for someone with less than five years' service with the state to an estimated $46,132 for workers with 30 years' seniority or more, according to estimates by the state Department of Human Resources. Some workers 'ecstatic' Some employees who had been terrified of the job cuts are now "ecstatic," and eager to sign up for the buyout package, Jones said. The Bredesen administration is trying to cut $468 million from next year's budget before the new fiscal year begins in July. If 2,011 state workers accept the buyouts, it would save the state $63 million a year. If the state doesn't get enough volunteers, it would move on to involuntary layoffs. State legislators, particularly Democrats, had balked at the administration's initial request that they sign off on the job cuts. Retiring state Rep. Rob Briley, D-Nashville, said lawmakers had been ready to push through a bill that would have put a freeze on any layoffs for the next year unless they got more information about the buyout package this week. The details that emerged Monday will probably satisfy most members, he said. Letters offering the buyout will go out to between 8,000 and 12,000 state employees on June 5. State departments and agencies were asked to identify positions that could be eliminated permanently. Among the first offered a crack at the buyouts could be the estimated 160 employees of the Department of Children's Services who are about to be laid off as a result of separate federal budget cutbacks, Jones said.

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