Retirement Exodus Continues

Retirement Exodus Continues

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- An injunction issued by the Utah Supreme Court wasn't enough to stop a wave of state employee retirements.

More than 300 workers retired in the first two weeks of December in an effort to preserve post-retirement medical benefits that will be phased out starting Jan. 1.

"That's a huge number," said Audry Wood, director of the Utah Public Employees Association, which represents one-fourth of the 25,000 state workers affected. "A lot of people obviously felt they had to retire."

Through the end of November, 530 state workers had submitted retirement papers. In all of last year, 364 state employees retired.

Lawmakers passed a bill this year changing the way state retirees use post-employment health benefits. A UPEA challenge of the law was rejected in district court. However this week the Utah Supreme Court said they'll hear arguments in the case Jan. 10, and delayed the effective date of the law. Now it won't become effective until 10 days are the court issues a ruling.

The question to be decided decide is how the sick leave accumulated by workers through 2005 can be used upon retirement. The state had allowed workers to convert unused sick leave into as much as 10 years' worth of health insurance coverage. The option was given to employees in lieu or pay raises during lean budget years.

But lawmakers opted the change after warnings that continuing the benefit could cost the state more than $300 million in just a few years, because of rising health care costs.

The law forced those with 30 years of experience to decide whether to leave by the end of the year or lose thousands of dollars' worth of health care.

A final count of retirements will be available next month, state Human Resources Director Jeff Herring said. The state is prepared to support those agencies losing large number of workers, including recruitment efforts to find new employees, Herring added.

Wood said taxpayers will suffer the loss of longtime state workers.

"This is what we've been calling the brain drain," Wood said. "The state's going to have to bring in new people. They'll have to train them. It just slows everything down."

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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