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308 Memphis cops call in sick in ‘blue flu’ protest

Move comes in protest to a recent City Council vote that will reduce health care subsidies for current and retired city employees


By Jody Callahan
The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than 13 percent of the officers in the Memphis Police Department have called in sick since June 30, the so-called Blue Flu that officials acknowledged Sunday was a deliberate work action.

A total of 308 Memphis officers have called in sick over the last week, MPD Director Toney Armstrong said in a Sunday afternoon press conference outside City Hall. That’s 13.5 percent of the estimated 2,280 officers in the department.

That’s also a big jump from the 181 who had called in sick through Saturday, a number that led MPD to ask the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department for help. About 50 deputies and reserve officers helped patrol Downtown Saturday night, and at least eight more were on loan Sunday.

The job action, which does not appear to have spread to the city’s fire department, comes in protest to a recent City Council vote that will reduce health care subsidies for current and retired city employees to redirect that money to the city’s troubled pension fund.

“It appears on the surface of it,” Armstrong said Sunday, “that we do have a work action.”

Armstrong acknowledged Sunday that some of the 308 officers have called in sick multiple times. Officials did not provide information on how many have called in sick more than once or how many total shifts have been missed.

In addition to asking the sheriff for help, MPD officials have also authorized overtime as well as brought in officers from specialized units like Organized Crime to fill in the gaps left by those who didn’t show for work.

“It’s going to cost us greatly in terms of overtime,” said Mayor AC Wharton, who joined Armstrong at the press conference. He was flanked by several high-ranking members of his administration.

Both Armstrong and Wharton kept a civil tone Sunday, despite being given the opportunity to condemn the work action.

“It’s my message to my officers that we have a duty to protect the city,” Armstrong said. “I would still like to think that the majority of our officers will honor that obligation.”

Wharton said the officers’ actions were punishing the city’s residents, not those at the council or in his administration who supported the cuts.

“Bottom line is, we had to do something,” Wharton said, citing a recent state law mandating that cities fully fund their pension plans within the next five years. “In the past, we might have said, ‘It’s not a crisis yet. Nobody’s missed a pension check.’”

Armstrong also reiterated that anyone found abusing the department’s sick-leave policy will be punished. Any officer with six or more sick days in a 12-month period faces an oral reprimand or up to 10 days suspension. After eight sick days, they face a suspension of 10 to 30 days. After the 10th sick day, the officer could be suspended for 30 days or fired.

“We have a sick-leave policy in place. We will review these officers,” Armstrong said.

Officials said Sunday that they don’t know if the police union played any role in the work action. Union president Mike Williams didn’t return a call Sunday.

Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson said Sunday that his department appears unaffected by the work action. On Sunday, 37 Memphis firefighters called in sick, Battalion Chief Keith Staples said, up from the 28 the department expects on a daily basis.

Council Seeks Ideas
The City Council plans to hear from citizens who have suggestions on how that body could have found the money to restore the city’s troubled pension fund without cutting health care benefits.

Beginning with the Council’s Personnel Committee meeting on July 15, and at each meeting of that committee through the end of the year, council members will listen to the public’s suggestions. The Personnel Committee meets every two weeks.

“This is a time for them to come in with specific ideas on how to come up with approximately $50- to $55-million to pay for the pension,” Council chairman Jim Strickland said, adding that it was “specifically not to complain about what we did but to offer suggestions.”

Copyright 2014 The Commercial Appeal