More than 2,000 Puerto Rican police officers called in sick on Christmas Day as controversy continues over overtime pay they say they have been owed since Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged the island in September.
Reports this week from the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, said some precincts had as few as three officers to cover four towns on the holiday, while security concerns in towns without power were still high.
As the island struggles to recover from the two Category 5 hurricanes that knocked out many basic services, authorities said police officers had been working 12- to 16-hour days to fill the need and guard against crimes, especially thefts of power generators.
Ramos Rosario Cortes, the island's public affairs and public policy secretary, announced Tuesday that the government would issue $6.4 million in overtime pay to police officers for the second half of December, to add to the $15 million it had made in overtime payments since Hurricane Maria hit.
But lawmaker Felix Lassalle Toro, Puerto Rico's House of Representatives Public Safety Committee chairman, said that amount was only a partial payment.
"We will not rest until they are paid what they are owed," Lassalle Toro told the San Juan Star on Wednesday. "Puerto Rico has a debt to them and we will honor it."
But he also pleaded with police officers to return to work.
"At this moment, we need them in the street, patrolling, helping the people," he said. "That is my request today."
Called in sick
The Star said 2,216 police officers had called in sick over Christmas weekend. That figure did not include officers who had scheduled time off ahead of the holiday.
Puerto Rico police are not allowed to unionize, but the head of an association that represents more than 8,000 police officers, Carlos Morales, told The Associated Press: "The question is quite clear: Do they have the money to pay police officers? That's the biggest battle we face to help solve the problem."
AP reported that the overtime funds were slow in coming because Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, must wait for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency before it can pay the money that many of Puerto Rico's 13,000 police officers say they are due.
Immediately following the hurricanes, which hit in rapid succession in September, police officers worked as long as 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Police Chief Michelle Hernandez recommended to Governor Ricardo Rossello that the U.S. National Guard be used to help fill temporary vacancies on the police force. AP said Rossello's administration rejected that idea.