Labor negotiations in Memphis took a scandalous turn this week as hundreds of the city’s police officers called in sick simultaneously in a large-scale protest against the Memphis City Council’s recent decision to cut healthcare benefits for city employees and retirees. The strike began over the Fourth of July weekend, which left Shelby County unprotected during a historically busy time for police work, and continues to this day. According to WMC Action News 5, the number of officers calling in sick had reached at least 552 by Tuesday morning.
The fake illness known as the “blue flu” has left city officials scrambling to provide police protection to the community. Officers from nearby towns have been enlisted to help patrol Memphis, as have approximately 50 Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies. Also, plainclothes detectives have been placed back in uniform and are patrolling the streets in an effort to fill the void created by the massive number of police officers calling in sick.
On June 17, the Memphis City Council approved a new budget which would reduce healthcare subsidies for current city employees and retirees. The changes would increase healthcare premiums for police and other city officials by 24%, create a penalty for smokers, and cut benefits for spouses who have other healthcare plans available through their employers. According to MyFoxMemphis, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said that the changes are necessary to control the city’s costs. However, the benefits cuts have not yet passed into law. On July 15, the Memphis City Council will take a final vote on the proposed changes to city employees’ benefits packages.
Facing a situation in which a significant percentage of the city’s police have been faking sick all at once, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong was quoted by WQAD-8 as saying, “We’re in a crisis mode. We’re going to do absolutely everything we have to do to make sure that public safety isn’t compromised.” Armstrong also specified that the mass illnesses were not a coincidence, and that officers could face punishment for skipping work and leaving the community in danger. According to The Memphis Daily News, Armstrong said, “I will acknowledge that this is more [sick leave] than normal for us and it appears on the surface that we do have a work action. If any of those officers are found to be out of compliance with our sick policies, corrective actions will be taken.”
Said Mayor Wharton of the massive number of sick leave requests, “We’ve not reached any conclusions about who may have orchestrated it. We do know this is not just happenstance. Three hundred officers don’t just accidentally call in at the same time. That defies common sense.”
Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams told The Commercial Appeal that the stunt may be backfiring politically, “This is not something that the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) orchestrated or condoned. I don’t necessarily agree with this because we were getting support from the citizens and smaller businesses in the community.” However, in a television appearance on WKNO-TV last month that was cited by The Memphis Daily News, Williams gave mixed signals, saying in reference to the cuts, “You’re going to make me have to think twice about running to the aid of citizens.”
The Memphis Police Department also made news recently on BenSwann.com when an off-duty officer allegedly attempted to rob a Make-A-Wish Foundation volunteer who was presenting a gift at Memphis International Airport to a child suffering from a serious illness.