Few Rebuked After Blue Flu, Red Rash 

Only a few reprimands have been issued for employees who missed work during police and fire protests.

So far, seven Memphis police officers and zero Memphis firefighters have been reprimanded for missing work during the Blue Flu and Red Rash protests last month.

Hundreds of public safety officers with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and Memphis Fire Services Department (MFSD) called in sick during a two-week span that included the Independence Day holiday. The absences were part of an apparent protest over cuts to health-care benefits for current and retired city employees. At the heights of the separate protests, more than 550 officers and 80 firefighters called in sick. 

click to enlarge Mayor Wharton acknowledged the - Blue Flu at a news conference last month. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Mayor Wharton acknowledged the Blue Flu at a news conference last month.

When the protest began, MPD Director Toney Armstrong said a process was in place to review those officers who called out during the work action. Corrective actions against any non-compliant officers absent during the time of the protest could range from an oral reprimand to termination, he said.     

Seven police officers have been reprimanded for absences during the Blue Flu time frame, according to MPD public information officer Sgt. Karen Rudolph. Statements of charges against the officers are pending approval, she said, and range from abusing the sick leave policy and missing court dates to not being at the location where they stated they'd spend their sick day.

"It is important that you understand that these officers are being presented with a statement of charges for these violations only; they should in no way be mentioned as 'officers involved with the Blue Flu,'" Rudolph said in a statement. "These officers were off sick during this time period; however, it was not determined that these officers were off in order to participate with a work action such as the 'Blue Flu.'"

Memphis Police Association President Michael Williams said he was not aware of a single reprimand to any Memphis police officer related to the Blue Flu protest. 

"I know that all of those guys had to have the right documentation to be able to come back to work," Williams said.

Alvin Benson, director of Memphis Fire Services Division, said he did not see a "noticeable spike" in sick days among Memphis firefighters as Blue Flu began. But as it waned, a similar action, the so-called Red Rash, began in his shop. At its height, though, only about 80 MFSD employees had called out sick.

MFSD spokesperson Lt. Wayne Cooke said no reprimands related to the Red Rash have been served on MFSD employees. He said when employees call in sick, each instance is evaluated separately. If the absence doesn't adhere to the city's leave policy, action is taken.

"In the case of the recent spike in illnesses, at this point, no disciplinary action has been warranted," Cooke said. "All absences, though some suspicious, were within existing policy and supported by required documentation."

The cuts that spurred the work action and other protests were part of Mayor A C Wharton's budget for the year and were passed by the Memphis City Council. Savings from those cuts are to help patch the massive hole in the city pension fund. 

Since the budget was passed, alternatives to the health-care cuts have come forward. Actuaries are now checking the figures in a new, high-deductible health-care plan brought to the council from the Memphis Fire Fighters Association.

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