VOL. 129 | NO. 132 | Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Blue Flu Tops 550 Cops Out
By Bill Dries
As Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong has watched the number of police officers on sick leave grow and top 550, so has much of the city.
Nearly a fourth of the Memphis Police force had called in sick through the Fourth of July holiday week in a job action to protest health insurance benefits cuts. Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong has described the blue flu protest as a “crisis.”
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Armstrong and the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. have gone public in not just talking about the impact but putting numbers to it.
By Tuesday morning, more than 550 police officers had called in sick out of a force of approximately 2,250, widening from several dozen officers out sick as the Fourth of July holiday week began. But the rate of increase appeared to have spiked, at least for now.
The sick-out has quickly become the most serious and most public job action by Memphis police rank and file since the 1978 police and fire strikes.
And so far, the unions representing police officers and fire fighters have charted different strategies in showing their displeasure.
Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Thomas Malone has said such a work slowdown is not an option for his membership and Fire Director Alvin Benson has said there is no indication of such a slowdown.
Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams has walked a finer line saying he doesn’t condone the blue flu protests but understands the reaction by some officers.
Both Malone and Williams said last month before the sick-in began among police that their unions will at some point take the city to court over the changes in benefits.
In response to the broader job action, Armstrong cancelled regular and vacation days off for all Memphis police officers effective Tuesday until further notice to deal with what amounts to 25 percent of the police force calling in sick.
He had already assigned officers in special and investigative units including the Organized Crime Unit back to uniform patrol and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is augmenting the police ranks within the city including the Beale Street Entertainment District over the holiday weekend.
The city is also using overtime at the outset of a fiscal year in which the city begins taking the financial measures to right its long-term financial condition.
The health insurance benefit cuts officers are protesting are the first part of those long-term changes.
The second part is proposed pension changes that would begin in some form a year from now.
Memphis City Council members voted July 1 to delay any vote on pension plan changes until October after hearing from the actuary firm they hired to advise them on the administration’s proposal and the financial estimates behind those numbers.
Council members are likely to explore alternatives to the administration’s proposal including a hybrid pension plan that could preserve defined benefits pension plans for public safety employees in the fire and police departments while shifting other city employees to the 401(k) type defined contributions plan but possibly with the city moving to enroll those general employees in Social Security. None of the city employees currently have Social Security coverage or contribute to Social Security.
Meanwhile, the council will field any alternatives to the health insurance cuts and proposed pension changes from any citizen who has a plan, starting in council committee sessions Tuesday, July 15. The deadline for citizens to schedule a presentation with the council is Friday, July 11, by 4 p.m., the close of the business day in the council office.
Council member Shea Flinn will oversee the forum through the council’s personnel committee starting at the committee’s Tuesday session at 8 a.m. Flinn has also said there may be several such forums required and presenting a plan is no guarantee the council will adopt that plan.
Wharton announced the forums over the weekend as he talked for the first time about the impact of the sick-out and some of the contingency plans the city has been mapping since the protest began.