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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

State officials will allow employees in the executive branch to carry over more than 240 hours of accrued annual leave at the end of this calendar year to use within the next two years, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation and Shared Services said Friday.

The action benefits employees who were unable to take some leave because of the covid-19 pandemic.

The officials also will allow employees in senior executive positions to do that as well, at the recommendation of the Legislative Council, department spokeswoman Alex Johnston said Friday afternoon.

The rate at which leave is accrued ranges from 12 days a year for state employees during their first three years of state service to 22.5 days a year for employees with more than 20 years of service.

Earlier in the day, Transformation and Shared Services Secretary Amy Fecher told the Legislative Council that state law prohibits state employees from carrying over more than 240 hours of leave at the end of a calendar year "so we are unable to carry over annual leave.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

"However, we have worked with the governor, and we are establishing a covid carry-forward category for this year only, and anyone that has over 240 hours of leave at the end of this year will be moved into that new category and they will be able to use those during 2021," she said. "We have excluded all senior executive positions from that ability."

This proposal would affect 5,291 state employees at this point, Fecher said.

There were 24,074 employees in the executive branch at the time this report was run, Johnston said afterward.

A council co-chairman, Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, said, "we have a lot of these folks in these front-line offices [with the Division of Workforce Services] that have accumulated all these hours on Saturday and not able to take any time off for the last eight months.

"I just want to make sure that this hour deadline you have set covers all those people, and they are able to have that time off," he said.

Jim Hudson, legal counsel for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said, "we are trying to solve that exact problem with this provision here.

"I will look at the list and see what the coverage is, and if it is not covering to the extent you are concerned [about], I will get with you and let you know," he said.

Wardlaw said, "I just want to make sure that we take care of these folks that have taken care of us and given up their Saturdays and given up their vacation time to make sure that people got signed up on unemployment.

"I know we have had a lot of trouble in corrections and in public safety," he said. "I just want to ensure that the 240 [hour] line is the right line to make sure we are not excluding any of these people that we need to take care of in the next year."

Ann Purvis, chief of staff at the Department of Transformation and Shared Services, said department officials compared what happened at the end of the last calendar year with what has happened so far this year.

There were 2,403 employees who gave up annual leave at the end of last year, and some of them were veteran state employees like her who might earn too much leave, she said.

"What we really concentrated on was that front-line worker and in particular we saw an increase ... this year to 5,291 employees with an average leave carry-forward of about 67 hours [beyond the 240-hour limit], Purvis said.

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said, "there is only so many hours that they can take, so will they be bought out at the end of their working career?"

Purvis said department officials will have to revisit this matter on an ongoing basis.

"As things maybe start settling down, after maybe the first or second quarter of next year, hopefully these people will be able to take their leave," she said. "But if that hasn't occurred, then we'll revisit that at that particular time."

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said, "as things are going now, I can foresee they might not be able to use [the leave] in 2021."

Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, asked about not allowing senior executives to also carry over annual leave.

Purvis said about 130 senior executives are in positions like she and Fecher.

"There are people in the senior executive level that have worked overtime and a lot of hours during the pandemic," Fecher said. "However, we felt like, at that level, that was a commitment they made to put in the hours it took to do the job."

Afterward, Johnston said 60 senior executive employees have accumulated more than 240 hours of annual leave.

Hammer told his colleagues that senior executive state employees should be able to carry over more than 240 hours of leave.

Elliott said, "if they have made these extraordinary commitments and all of these hours, we need to be thinking about them too.

"I don't care how much money you make because money does not make quality of life if you don't have time to enjoy your life," she said.

Wardlaw suggested allowing carryover leave to be used in 2021 and 2022.

"We are going to need these front line workers possibly through at least half of next year ... and possibly the whole year," he said. "These people are the guys that they are sweating to make sure the state of Arkansas gets to have the benefits ... and to make sure that our prisoners stay in lockup and fed. ... If we are going to do this, let's do it right."

Fecher said, "if it would make the body more comfortable to extend it for two years, we can do that. Our thoughts were, we would extend it for one year and see how things went to encourage people to go ahead and take that time off because they have worked so hard. But if it makes everyone feel better at two years, we could set it at two years."

The Legislative Council voted to recommend allowing state employees in the executive branch to carry over more than 240 hours of annual leave at the end of this year to use in 2021 and 2022, and allowing senior executive employees to do so as well.

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