San Juan, PR – The island of Puerto Rico is about to experience a “blue flu” as thousands of sworn police officers plan to call in sick for Halloween weekend starting on Friday morning to protest the decimation of their retirements by the Puerto Rican government.
“It’s historical,” a Puerto Rico police source told The Police Tribune. “By regulation, the PPR is prohibited from entering any kind of job action against the government.”
“But at the same time,” the source continued, “we are citizens and we have a big problem with the government.”
The Policia de Puerto Rico (PPR) is the second largest police department in the United States, with 17,000 sworn officers.
But for an island that is a high-density drug interdiction point with extreme violent crime, the officers earn far less than their stateside counterparts in both salary and benefits.
A Puerto Rico police veteran with more than 35 years on the force told The Police Tribune he earned about $50,000 a year, and that the current starting salary for new recruits is just about $34,000.
He said that when he was hired, the retirement plan in his contract said that he could retire after 30 years, after age 55, with 75 percent of his salary, but the government of Puerto Rico has changed that a couple of times since he signed on.
The source explained that in 2013, the government changed the scale, and reduced the retirement payments the veteran officers would get from 75 percent to 46 percent.
Under the new plan, officers who joined the department in 2013 or later have to wait 40 years to retire and will ultimately get a retirement of just 22 percent of their annual salary, the Puerto Rico police officer told The Police Tribune.
“To makes things worse, there is no standard in the retirement plan for police officers,” the source complained.
He said officers who joined the department after 2000 don’t really have any retirement plan at all.
“It’s not a pension. It’s not a 401k,” the veteran officer told The Police Tribune. “It’s the same as putting your money in a shoebox because the government is not matching anything for police officers who joined the force after 2000.”
He explained that Puerto Rico police officers only began paying into Social Security two years ago, so the officers who were counting on have a 75 percent retirement their entire careers do not have a safety net of any kind to fall back on.
The source said that prior to 2019, officers were prohibited from contributing to Social Security by law because the majority of officers hadn’t wanted to do it when the option was first given.
“The salaries were so low that the majority voted against it at the time, but back then they believed our retirements were well-funded,” he told The Police Tribune.
But since that time, the government of Puerto Rico has fallen billions of dollars in debt and in 2016, Congress enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) and established a seven-member oversight panel to help restructure the debt.
Police sources said that Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi has said he agreed with the police officers and felt they deserved to have their retirements properly funded as had been promised.
But Pierluisi has also said that the PROMESA board said the island couldn’t afford it, and so it’s out of his hands, according to officers.
“At present, the government has limited means to address officers’ demands, as much of the island’s fiscal policy must be approved by the federally-appointed Fiscal Control Board as part of the 2016 PROMESA law overseeing Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring,” GardaWorld reported.
The biggest problem, multiple sources told The Police Tribune, is the fact that Puerto Rico police officers are prohibited by law from organizing a union to represent the rank-and-file in the department.
There are several different organizations that officers can join to represent their interests, and some of them even call themselves “unions,” but officers said it’s a disorganized mess that struggles to accomplish anything.
“We have different groups that represent rank-and-file, but they have multiple messages,” one source explained. “We need one group that represents in one direction. But as long as we can’t have a union, there’s going to be separation and we’ll never have unity in our message.”
He told The Police Tribune that the walkout that begins on Friday is a last resort for Puerto Rico police.
“We have tried conversations many, many times. We’ve gotten thousands of promises over the last 15 years. Every governor says that he’s going to fix it,” the veteran officer said.
“We’re not asking for anything different – just fix what you broke,” he added.
Groups that represent the officers on the island have warned that most of the island’s police force has planned to take sick leave for three days beginning on Oct. 29.
“While the measure would not be a strike, per se, as officers would use sick leave, the end result would be the same as that of a work stoppage,” GardaWorld reported. “Elements within the police force have stated that there would likely be no unrest or protests associated with the action, but instead, there would be a shortage of police personnel on duty due to officers staying home.”
PPR Commissioner Antonio Lopez Figueroa has said that he thought there would be enough personnel on duty over Halloween weekend, but there are reports that a higher-than-normal number of officers began calling in sick even earlier in the week.
Puerto Rico police officers said they’re seeing a lot of support for the sick-out and several told The Police Tribune they intended to shop ahead for the weekend and hunker down inside their homes with their families because they didn’t think it would be safe out on the street.
“This is not to mess with the citizens,” a source explained to The Police Tribune. “This is like what NYPD did many years ago. We are saying that we are asking for this, we deserve it, we earned it. And if you don’t grant it to us, we will stop working.”
“It’s a mix of a lot of problems with the government – not just the police,” he added.