Wharton: Focus is to Get Officers Back to Work

By Bill Dries

Talks in recent days among city leaders and the heads of the police and fire unions have focused on ending the sick-out among police and firefighters since the Fourth of July holiday week that appears to have leveled off.

That’s what Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said Friday on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“The key focus has been come back to work. We don’t want to set a precedent of anybody who has a grievance with the city walking off the job,” Wharton said. “And saying, ‘I’m not going to come back to my desk until you give me what I want’ -- we cannot open that door. The city would fall apart if we do that.”

Wharton made the comment as Friday morning figures showed renewed evidence that the blue flu job action by police officers has leveled off at least for now with 441 officers out sick as of Friday morning. That is from a high of more than 550 earlier in the week.

“We’re watching the numbers. It is stressing and straining us. But we’re keeping response times within acceptable ranges,” Wharton said during the program that can be seen at 7 p.m. Friday on WKNO and which is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News. “Can we go on forever like that? No, we cannot. But I am not going to draw a line in the sand and throw down on that.”

Wharton wouldn’t talk about specific proposals regarding health care changes made at the private talks this week between his administration and the unions. The blue flu sick-out is believed to be a protest of health care benefit changes Wharton proposed and the Memphis City Council approved in June.

Wharton said delaying health care benefits cuts now scheduled to take effect in January is not an option given the coming November open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act.

“To the degree that individuals are moved off the legacy city plan and onto the exchange, there’s a window there. We’re kind of in a bind there,” he said. “What we are saying across the board is not even for one day will any employee or retiree be without health care.”