By Tim Ghianni
(Reuters) - More than 550 police officers from Memphis, Tennessee, called in sick on Tuesday, a quarter of the department, in an escalating protest over cuts in health benefits that could eventually cost some officers their jobs, the city's mayor said.
The so-called "blue flu" wave started June 30 and has grown daily in an apparent protest to a new Memphis budget that raises the health premiums active city workers pay and cuts retiree health benefits, officials said.
"I understand the disappointment these officers feel," Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr said in a statement. "However, disappointment is not an excuse to abuse the sick leave policy and refuse to perform the duties they are paid to carry out to ensure public safety."
More than 550 of the department's 2,200 officers called in sick Tuesday. Memphis has canceled vacations and other scheduled time off for officers to take up the slack and the Shelby County sheriff has helped fill in gaps, officials said.
Wharton said public safety has not been compromised and the city would do whatever is necessary to keep it that way.
Officers staging a sick-out can be disciplined up to termination, Wharton said, urging Memphis police association leaders to denounce the sick-out and urge officers who are not sick to return to work.
"It's a tough predicament," said Memphis City Councilman Lee Harris, chairman of the council's budget committee. "The public in general supports our officers, but everyone is anxious and concerned."
Harris said the new city budget, which he voted against, raises health care premiums by 24 percent for active city workers and eliminates a city contribution for retirees to save $23 million.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville, Tennessee; Editing by David Bailey and Lisa Shumaker)