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Thanks to an extraordinarily generous vacation policy, a select group of BART's white-collar employees have stockpiled a combined seven decades' worth of unused time off -- literally like money in a bank that can be cashed in for fat retirement windfalls.

The costly perk isn't getting much scrutiny as commuters sweat a potential strike and management and blue-collar unions slug it out at the bargaining table. That's because this little-known benefit isn't available to the vast majority of BART workers who are threatening to cripple the Bay Area's commute over their pay and benefits. It's reserved for BART's top-level employees like former general manager Dorothy Dugger.

The same "vacation bank" that allowed her to stay on the payroll for almost two years after she resigned has permitted hundreds of other BART managers and nonunion employees to rack up a combined 69 years -- that's right, years -- of unused vacation and holiday now worth about $7.8 million, an analysis by this newspaper reveals. One veteran engineer has more than 970 vacation days himself in the bank.

And it gets even sweeter for employees like Dugger, because BART lets them continue to accrue benefits -- and even more vacation -- while burning off unused time off after they quit.

Labor relations specialist Wilbur Wong's last day of work was March 21, 2011, but he banked so much time off -- 5,000 hours -- that he won't stop getting BART checks until the end of this year. Records show Wong was paid $98,000 last year, all for unused time off.


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"You can't make this up," said Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste. BART's policy "is certainly unusual. I've never heard of it before. It's costly to taxpayers and transit users to give employees such lavish benefits.''

Dugger's $558,000 windfall came to light earlier this month in this newspaper's analysis of BART's 2012 payroll that showed she was still the agency's highest-paid employee -- despite being forced to resign in May 2011. She stayed home -- but on the payroll -- continuing to draw benefits, management bonuses and vacation that added about another $100,000 to her pay.

At the time, BART officials said they didn't know the scope of the problem. The newspaper obtained more documents under the Public Records Act to find Dugger was far from alone in banking time off: 290 BART employees, mostly nonunion and engineers and managers, have a combined 135,000 hours of vacation and holiday time banked -- or 3,600 weeks off under the agency's 371/2-hour workweek.

Management should look "close to home" for cost-cutting measures like eliminating terminal leave before cutting pay and benefits of "front-line workers," said Leah Berlanga, a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which represents the agency's maintenance workers.

Currently, 25 BART employees have more than 1,400 hours vacation and holiday time set aside -- more than 37 weeks each, data shows.

With more than 7,300 hours ¿of unused time off squirreled away during a 44-year career, no one is more illustrative of the generous vacation and holiday policies than 81-year-old engineer Robert Fickes.

He started at BART before the trains even started running, and he's sitting on a payday of more than $472,000 when he retires -- but that's only if he decides to take a lump-sum check on his last day of work.

If Fickes chooses, instead, to stay on the rail agencies books, it will take nearly four years to burn down all his accumulated vacation. And by remaining on the payroll, he'd rack up about 25 more weeks of vacation and holidays worth about $62,500, payroll data shows.

All ¿BART employees receive generous time-off benefits. Those who have worked at the agency for more than 19 years get six weeks of vacation a year, and every employee gets 13 holidays off.

The workers eligible to bank unused time off are allowed to stockpile five holidays a year and all unused vacation. The vacation banks have no caps, so longtime employees can continue to add unused time off year after year. When they finally cash it out, employees are paid at their last rate of pay, which is typically their highest.

BART President Tom Radulovich of San Francisco said the numbers show a need to both limit time-off accruals and to stop letting employees stay on the payroll to slowly burn off their unused vacation after they leave BART instead of taking a lump-sum payment. He also said it's time to find a reasonable cap on how much time employees can bank.

"It would make a lot more sense," he said.

The agency's General Manager Grace Crunican was not available for an interview this week because of union contract negotiations. She told this newspaper's editorial board earlier this month that allowing managers to bank time off for future paydays was an incentive to inspire hard work and innovation.

Thursday, Crunican's spokeswoman, Alicia Trost, said in a statement that the general manager "will be taking a look into BART's terminal leave program to get an understanding of (its) scope and impacts."

Fickes declined to be interviewed. Trost described him as a legend in the agency for his work ethic, and that he told her that he doesn't enjoy travel or time away from work, where one of his recent projects was installing new fare gates at stations.

Workers like Wong and Fickes violated no policies and aren't to blame, Trost said.

But critics like Schatz said BART riders and taxpayers should be appalled by the policy. "If this was something that members of Congress got,'' he said, "there would be total outrage."

Reach investigative reporter Thomas Peele at Tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele