Top political appointees of the governor at agencies outside the field of health care were offered many of the largest payments to acknowledge skipped vacations during the pandemic in 2020, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.
Under ordinary circumstances, state employees lose without payment any unused vacation leave in excess of 240 hours at the end of the year. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave state workers additional time to use that vacation leave and in June offered up to 80 hours of salary to people who still have not used excess vacation allotments.
Employees also were allowed to opt out and utilize the excess vacation time by July 9. Records were not immediately available that indicate which employees declined payments.
Public records show that potential payouts of more than $4,000 were offered to the state secretary of finance and administration, directors of the Public School Insurance Authority and the Expo New Mexico venue that hosts the state fair, as well as two officials at the State Investment Council that oversees multibillion-dollar public trust funds.
Payments for unused vacation time were offered to 84 political appointees, at an average of $2,020. The largest of those offers — for $5,616 — went to the chief operating officer at the Office of the Governor.
Lujan Grisham said in a letter to state personnel officials that the approved payments “underscore our sincere appreciation for the work state employees have done during a trying time.”
Payouts averaging about $940 were offered to 728 nonpolitical state employees in middle-management, professional and rank-and-file positions.
The very highest vacation-leave payout of $13,794 was offered to a physician at Miners Colfax Medical Center, a public hospital based in Raton. No other offer exceeded $6,000.
The payout plan for unused vacation time was approved as Lujan Grisham ramps up her campaign for reelection and looks for ways to reignite the state economy after one of the nation’s most aggressive emergency health shutdowns.
Lujan Grisham’s administration has been both praised and reviled for the public health restrictions during the pandemic that suspended most in-person schooling for a year, mandated masks and closed down indoor dining, entertainment venues and state museums.
On Thursday, the state lifted most pandemic restrictions on businesses and public gatherings. And on Friday, Lujan Grisham announced that federal relief will provide a back-to-work bonus of up to $1,000 for those who find work and leave unemployment rolls.
Extraordinary work demands during the pandemic made it difficult for many state employees to take paid vacation that they earned, said State Personnel Office Secretary Ricky Serna. Agency budgets can cover the payments for unused vacation, he said, without new appropriations by lawmakers.