Thousands of police officers are calling in sick every day in Puerto Rico, partly to press demands for unpaid overtime pay for hurricane recovery efforts as concerns grow over people’s safety in a U.S. territory struggling to restore power.
The increase in absences recently prompted Puerto Rico Police Chief Michelle Hernandez to recommend that U.S. National Guard soldiers help fill the temporary vacancies.
“We have had an inordinate amount of absences that we haven’t seen in years prior,” she told The Associated Press, adding that while there has been a drop in major crimes this year, she is concerned that trend could reverse.
However, the administration of Gov. Ricardo Rossello on Wednesday rejected the idea of using the National Guard.
Normally, an average of 550 police officers are absent every day across Puerto Rico, which has one of the largest police departments under U.S. jurisdiction with more than 13,000 officers overall. But recently, more than 2,700 officers on average have been absent daily.
Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario said the government has already made nearly $15 million in overtime payments since Hurricane Maria hit more than three months ago and $6.4 million more will be distributed Saturday.
“There are a lot of police officers who are not showing up,” he said. “We are trying to address all demands to encourage these police officers to return to their jobs.”
Hernandez estimated the government owes officers an additional $35 million in overtime pay, but said the department is still tallying attendance sheets to determine the exact amount.