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VOL. 7 | NO. 28 | Saturday, July 5, 2014

Armstrong Confirms Blue Flu, Wharton Seeks Alternatives

By Bill Dries

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More than 400 Memphis police officers called in sick during the Fourth of July holiday week in what Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong acknowledged Sunday, July 6, is most likely an organized work slowdown by officers upset over cuts in health insurance benefits.

“I will acknowledge that this is more than normal for us and it appears on the surface that we do have work action,” Armstrong said outside City Hall, adding that the absences have not affected public safety.

He also said the city has updated contingency plans if the absences continue or grow. He would not be specific about what they are.

Armstrong tallied the number of officers calling in sick at 308 through Saturday at the Sunday press conference. New figures from police brass Monday added another 100 to the total who called in sick Sunday.

Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson said absences among firefighters were normal over the holiday weekend and did not prompt any special measures by his department.

In the case of police, officers from investigative units including the Organized Crime Unit have been used for uniform patrol in the various precincts because of the sick-out.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., meanwhile, said he and his administration have been talking with City Council members over the holiday weekend about possible alternatives to the health insurance cuts the council approved last month for current employees as well as retirees and pension changes the council has delayed action on until October. The cuts affect all city employees and retirees. Police and fire rank and file and their unions have been the most vocal in protesting the cuts.

Wharton said council members will open a process for alternative plans Monday.

“They will be making an announcement tomorrow with respect to a process where if there are alternatives – let’s put them on the table,” Wharton said without specifying what that could include. “We put these proposals out months ago. We didn’t say we liked them. I don’t like them quite frankly. But the alternatives are quite limited now.”

Council member Shea Flinn said the personnel committee he chairs will meet Tuesday, July 15 at 8 am and hear any alternative proposals on the health insurance changes already approved as well as alternative pension proposals.

"People keep saying there are other ooptions and maybe there are," Flinn said. "We're not reopening the issue we are just saying ... bring your idea to the table. All that we are going to ask is that you submit something in advance to the council so we can schedule it. We are probably going to have to do this multiple times."

Last week council member discussed a $2 million emergency fund to be used for employees and retirees who cannot get health insurance in the transition of plans. The council could vote on that at its July 15 meeting.

Wharton said such a fund has been among the items his administration discussed with council members individually over the weekend.

“That’s part of it. We are looking to enhance that. We’d like input on that to make sure that nobody is left without good and decent affordable health care. That is wide open too,” Wharton said. “We are begging for alternatives that will get us to the same place.”

The health care changes are linked to the pension proposals because savings to the city from the health care changes are to be used to up annual payments of the city’s unfunded pension liability.

"If you've got a better idea, I am all ears," Flinn said. "But this is not going to be a place to simply, 'I don't like what you did.'"

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