Memphis Police Department Hit with "Blue Flu" Protest 

Memphis police officers call in sick to protest cuts in benefits that experts have called "generous."

The "blue flu" protest by Memphis police officers is rooted in changes to their health-care benefits and proposed changes to their retirement benefits. Some have called the benefits "generous," but others contend they match the tough and sometimes gruesome work of being a cop in Memphis.

The changes prompted hundreds of Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers to call in sick before, during, and after the Independence Day holiday weekend. The protest was not sanctioned by the Memphis Police Association (MPA), according to the police union's president Michael Williams.  

Last month, the Memphis City Council approved a

24 percent increase to the premiums city employees and some retirees pay for their city-sponsored health insurance. The increase was a compromise down from the 57 percent rate hike proposed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. 

The council also cut from the city's health plan the spouses of city employees if they can get insurance from their employer. Also, a fee on tobacco users was raised from $50 to $120 per pay period.

These health-care changes are on the books but won't take effect until later this year or the beginning of next year. But what about those benefits? 

The city's five-year plan from the PFM Group, expert consultants hired by the city, was delivered in January and said that some of the city's employee health-care benefits are actually better than those of other cities comparable to Memphis. 

• Health insurance premiums —The original 70 percent/30 percent split between the city and employee has shifted over the years to a 75.7 percent/23.1 percent split in 2012, the plan says. The shift raised the cost to the city by

$3.8 million from 2010 to 2012. 

Expenses to cover those costs rose 36.6 percent from 2008 to 2012, the study says. The same costs rose only 22.8 percent in the same time for similar public and private employers. 

Health insurance deductibles - Memphis city employees pay $100 per person up to $300. Metro Nashville employees pay $2,000, the study says. Atlanta employees pay $900. Boston employees pay $400. "This constitutes a generous benefit to [Memphis] city employees compared to other public and private employers," the study says.

George Little, the city's chief administrative officer, said Wharton administration officials have used the five-year plan in making policy decisions. But changing employee health-care options to curtail city spending has been suggested by similar studies going back to Willie Herenton's administration, Little said.  

 "[The benefits are] higher than the peer cities and better than — I mean way, way better — than most folks in the private sector are getting right now," Little said.

But Williams said officers here deserve better benefits packages because they don't get Social Security benefits like those in the private sector, and they have hazardous jobs that take a toll on their bodies and that "no one else wants to do."

"We arrive on a crime scene with carnage and dead babies and bodies that have been decomposing for days or children that have been molested," Williams said. "So, to say our packages are better; they may not be better."

The city council is still debating changes to employee pension benefits, which the five-year plan contends has some components "richer than comparable jurisdictions." 

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