By Sandy Malone and Ginny Reed
San Juan, PR – The “Blue Flu” has struck the island of Puerto Rico, with thousands of police officers calling off sick daily in December after officials pocketed FEMA money rather than paying officers.
Island newspaper El Vocero reported that 5,219 officers called out sick on Dec. 21, and 3,878 officers called out sick on Dec. 22, and the numbers climbed dramatically after Christmas.
Almost 8,000 officers of the 13,000-member Policia de Puerto Rico (PPR) called in sick on Thursday, according to police sources.
The numbers of absences reported did not include the investigative division, or any other units outside of regular uniformed patrol.
“We have had an inordinate amount of absences that we haven’t seen in years prior,” Puerto Rico Police Chief Michelle Hernandez told AP News.
Police sources told Blue Lives Matter that the massive sick out is the result of several factors.
First, in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which caused destruction unlike anything ever seen in the United States before, police officers were asked to work 12 and 18-hour shifts, with no days off, and the promise of payment when FEMA reimbursed the government of Puerto Rico.
Most parts of Puerto Rico have now been without power for more than 100 days.
Although the government has received some reimbursement payments from FEMA, sources said that only officers working as bodyguards for police officials, and elected government representatives, have received the promised overtime payments.
“Everybody who was on the street actually putting the work in didn’t get paid yet,” a Puerto Rico police officer with 15 years on the department told Blue Lives Matter.
But the PPR administration and the government knew there would be a huge officer shortage in December, months before the storms raged across the island.
Earlier this year, the department announced a new “use it or lose it” policy for officers’ accumulated sick leave. So officers are using it.
“They knew the Blue Flu was coming. Count back 18 days from January 1st,” the veteran officer explained. “And that doesn’t include holidays, so those 18 days end up being more like a solid month of leave for officers who usually work a five-day week. But if we don’t use it, it’s gone and they won’t pay us for it. So they caused this situation.”
He said that the police administration panicked when they saw the daily sick-leave totals in December, and recently announced a six-month extension to use the sick leave.
But he said nobody is taking advantage of it because they don’t trust that police officials won’t change the policy again before that deadline.
The lack of trust is warranted because all of the Puerto Rico police officers’ pensions have been in limbo since the island entered into an historic financial crisis a couple of years ago. The government drained the officers’ pension funds to help repay the island’s debt, and there’s no promise to return those funds to retirees who paid into the pension system.
As a result, bilingual police officers have been leaving the island to find jobs stateside, reducing the size of the police force from 17,000 to 13,000 in just a few short years.
“They feel in a way cheated in the past 15 years in terms of benefits,” Chief Hernandez said.
The recent increase in officers' absences prompted Chief Hernandez to recommend that U.S. National Guard soldiers help fill temporary positions.
The chief said that while there has been a drop in major crimes in Puerto Rico this year, she is concerned that trend could change.
Police sources questioned the chief’s crime statistics, and pointed out that most of the island remained without 911 service for several months because of the storms, leaving statistics severely skewed. Some municipalities are still unable to dial 911 in an emergency, and the death toll from the storm remained unconfirmed and is under investigation by federal authorities.
On Wednesday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello turned down the chief’s request to use the National Guard.
“There are a lot of police officers who are not showing up,” Gov. Rossello said. “We are trying to address all demands to encourage these police officers to return to their jobs.”
Carlos Morales, president of the association that represents more than 8,000 Puerto Rico police officers, laid the problem out in unambiguous terms.
“The question is quite clear: Do they have the money to pay police officers?” Morales asked. “That’s the biggest battle we face to help solve the problem.”
“Police officers can’t take it anymore,” he said. “They have their problems. They’ve lost their homes. They’ve lost a lot of things, and on top of it, they have to keep working.”
Most police officers worked seven days a week for 12 to 15 hours a day in September and October, according to lobbying groups for the island’s police officers, who are not allowed to unionize.
Chief Hernandez estimated the officers are owed an additional $35 million by the government in overtime pay. She said her department was still adding up attendance sheets to determine the exact amount.
Officials said part of the problem is that Puerto Rico’s government has to wait for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse it for overtime police pay.
The chief described it as a slow process, and told AP News in a phone interview that it was unfair to keep asking officers to work without paying them what is owed.
Many people are concerned about the island’s ability to keep people safe with a shortage of officers and numerous towns still completely in the dark.
“I don’t want to wait until this gets out of control,” Puerto Rico State Senator Axel Roque said Wednesday.
He said that one precinct had only three police officers to cover four towns on Christmas Eve, and that another precinct recently had to ask a nearby precinct for more officers to help cover all shifts that day.
“Citizens are paying taxes and expect that the government fulfill its obligations to guarantee their security,” Sen. Roque said.
He said that thefts, especially those involving generators, had increased since the hurricane.
“We’re facing limitations,” Sen. Roque said.