Sometimes politics can be useful.
Take The Bee's Sunday report that that 56 employees in the Department of Parks and Recreation secretly cashed in more than $270,000 of their leave while the state was preparing to mothball 70 public parks.
On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, called for a probe of the department's finances. Don't be surprised if the parks story crops up in campaign ads this fall as proof that voters should reject Gov. Jerry Brown's November ballot measure to hike taxes despite the wastefulness of government.
Step back from the inevitable political posturing and what remains is a chance to examine a workplace policy and culture that encourages employees to stack up leave as a retirement nest egg.
State policy says that most workers can bank up to 640 hours of leave, but it's a cap that's often ignored. Those hours get cashed out at the employees' final pay rate when they exit. Sweet deal, especially if you carry a lot of time on the books from when you earned less.
Two years ago, the state had $2.75 billion worth of employee leave on the books. That number is surely higher today, because subsequent furloughs and staff cutbacks have likely prompted many workers to take fewer paid days off.
That aside, managers are a big part of the problem.
"My experience is that managers carry the largest leave balances," said Dave Gilb, former head of what is now the state's human resources department.
At the parks department, a deputy director reportedly orchestrated the secret leave payouts last year, including more than $20,000 to himself.
It's an extreme case, but it highlights how managers can rationalize stacking up leave time.
Managers don't make overtime. Many earn less than the unionized workers they manage. Building up leave reserves beyond the cap becomes the make-good for the perceived inequity.
Some managers rationalize that they can't finish their work if they take time off. Furloughs and layoffs have only lent credence to that view.
The state relies on those same people to plan staff work schedules and enforce leave policy. But managers who stack up hours past the cap lose moral authority. They relax the rules for workers under them, who in turn load up on leave. And so it goes.
"It's ethically inappropriate for managers to take care of themselves and their friends," Gilb said. "They have to lead by example."
Former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seven years ago proposed a plan to labor groups that would have tightened up on leave accruals and saved millions of dollars. The unions brushed it aside as a management issue. Department managers griped about the plan. Schwarzenegger moved on.
If jacking up leave balances perverts a system intended to promote a healthy, rested workforce, the parks department scandal presents an opening to fix it.