"Blue Flu" Has Not Compromised Memphis Public Safety, Says Wharton



Memphis police and fire employees and their supporters huddle around Memphis Mayor A C Wharton during a Tuesday news conference on the so-called blue flu protest.
  • Toby Sells
  • Memphis police and fire employees and their supporters huddle around Memphis Mayor A C Wharton during a Tuesday news conference on the so-called "blue flu" protest.

Public safety has not been compromised in Memphis since a “blue flu” protest began more than a week ago, according to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton.

Wharton called a news conference Tuesday afternoon to give an update on the protest that has led hundreds of Memphis Police Department [MPD] officers to simultaneously call in sick before, during, and after the Independence Day holiday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 552 officers had called out sick since June 30 but Memphis chief administrative officer George Little thought that number would grow when the night shifts began.

Wharton said he has been “talking every hour” with MPD director Toney Armstrong and that if crime has spiked during the protest, “it has not been reported to me.” But when asked if he has contacted the National Guard about the situation, he said, "all options are open."

The news conference was called to highlight a new memo issued to city employees by Little on Tuesday that outlines a city policy that can “deny sick leave benefits if the employee does not meet the criteria outlined in this policy.” That policy can “require medical documentation on demand which supports claims for sick leave benefits payments.”

“Given recent events by our employees, the administration must insist on strict adherence to the city’s policy and procedure on sick leave benefits,” the memo reads.

Employees must:
• Request sick leave at least two hours before their shift is scheduled to begin.
• Cannot take blocks of sick time off unless “medical documentation is received.”
• Illustrate exactly what job duties and responsibilities they cannot perform because of their illness or injury.
• Report their “convalescent location” to their manager.
• Must remain at that location unless notice is given to their manager.
• Provide a doctor’s note for any absence of three consecutive days or longer.

The memo ends with a reminder that the city can decide whether an employee can return to the city’s employment, stay in the city’s employment, or use any other city leave benefits.

Dozens of Memphis police and fire supporters crowded into the Hall of Mayors at Memphis City Hall for Tuesday's news conference. Many held signs and wore yellow shirts to show their union support, fire fighter helmets, or shirts emblazoned with the logo of their fire or police station.

The supporters interrupted Wharton on several occasions with outbursts of disagreement or disgust as he answered questions from the media. The supporters used the end of the conference to tell Wharton stories about how the cuts in health care benefits or to the pension system would affect them or a loved one.

Wharton repeatedly refused to call the police absences a “blue flu,” or a “strike” or a “protest.” But he said officers who have called out sick during the event will be dealt with. Armstrong has said he can use a range of corrective actions that range from oral reprimand to termination.

“I want to say thank you to all the officers who are on duty,” Wharton said. “The fact that they are on duty means that the safety of this city has not been compromised.”

The blue flu protest apparently began after the Memphis City Council passed cuts to the health care benefits of city employees. The council is also in the midst of discussions of changes to the city pension system.

But Wharton invited interested parties like labor unions to “come back to the table” to discuss further compromises on the issues. Council members have also invited interested parties to deliver their ideas on closing the financial gaps in the city’s health benefit fund and pension fund during a committee meeting next week.

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