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VOL. 129 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 10, 2014

City Could Consider Blue Flu a Strike

By Bill Dries

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At some point, if enough Memphis Police officers call in sick, the job action underway since the end of June could be considered a strike by the city of Memphis. And that would signal a new phase in what is the most significant job action by Memphis Police since the 1978 police and fire strikes.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and his administration began to tighten terms for city workers calling in sick this week as Wharton began to question whether the sick-out by police amounts to a strike.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. used the work “strike” without prompting Tuesday, July 8, as he warned that his administration will “approach it accordingly” when it comes to the more than 550 Memphis Police officers who have called in sick in the last week.

“If it’s not legal under the ordinances, under state law, I’m not going to be able to split any hairs about whether this is a strike or whether it’s this or that,” Wharton said. “And we are going to approach it accordingly.”

When he was asked specifically about whether the blue flu has become a strike, Wharton said, “I’m not going to put a label on it. You can call it what you wish. You heard the numbers. Individuals are not reporting for duty. I will leave it to the lawyers to put whatever label they wish on that.

“For the citizens – they are not going to split hairs between whether it’s a sick out or a slow down or whatever,” he added. “And I’m looking at it from their perspective. They are not giving me any slack on this. That’s the bottom line.”

The use of the word strike to possibly describe the sick-out is new rhetorical ground by the administration, and it was accompanied by a much stricter and specific interpretation of city policies for using sick leave.

The administration sent a memo Tuesday to all city employees from Chief Administrative Officer George Little saying given the sick-out, “the administration must insist on strict adherence to the city’s policy and procedure on sick leave benefits.”

He then outlined in the memo very specific procedures for calling in sick.

That strict adherence includes all employees being required to call in sick with supervisors on a daily basis until they have “proper medical documentation” noting a block of time the employee will be out. The daily requests have to be made two hours prior to the start of their shift.

An employee has to tell his or her boss “with particularity the particular job duties and responsibilities the employee is unable to perform.”

The same specification has to be made in the doctor’s note required for being out three consecutive days or more. Employees out sick have to tell their manager where they are recovering, and the city may check that location in person or by telephone.

Those are all measures that could go toward making a case in Chancery Court, the venue the city used in 1978 for court orders against the Memphis Police Association and the Memphis Fire Fighters Association declaring their strikes illegal.

“We will do whatever is necessary. We are not ruling anything out,” Wharton said Tuesday when asked about a possible move to Chancery Court by the city. “I don’t believe in throwing down the gauntlet. I believe in keeping communications open. But at the same time, knowing that we have the wherewithal to do whatever the case may be, we will do it to keep this city safe.”

Memphis Fire Department brass reported Wednesday that 65 firefighters had called in sick, an unusually high number that built to that level over two days. Prior to that as police sick-out numbers grew, Fire Director Alvin Benson has said there have been no unusual absences that have caused him to resort to the measures used by police.

Police Director Toney Armstrong has cancelled all regular days off and scheduled vacations for police officers and has used Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies as well as assigning police officers in units like the Organized Crime Unit back to uniform patrol.

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