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MINISTER PROMISES TO DEFEND 'SUBSTANTIAL NEEDS AND INTERESTS' OF POLICE

Police leave force in droves fearing loss of social benefits

NEARLY 400 police officers of various ages and ranks have quit the police force in the last month, many of them afraid that government reforms will lead to a substantial loss of social benefits.
Since the new cabinet took office a month ago, ministerial discussions on the need to reduce state costs and reevaluate the existing system of social benefits to state employees have frightened hundreds of officers into withdrawing from state service, insiders say.
Benefits the officers say they may lose include golden handshakes when policemen leave the force - one-time payments calculated as one full month's pay plus half that sum for every year the officer served with the force - and a generous pension.

NEARLY 400 police officers of various ages and ranks have quit the police force in the last month, many of them afraid that government reforms will lead to a substantial loss of social benefits.

Since the new cabinet took office a month ago, ministerial discussions on the need to reduce state costs and reevaluate the existing system of social benefits to state employees have frightened hundreds of officers into withdrawing from state service, insiders say.

Benefits the officers say they may lose include golden handshakes when policemen leave the force - one-time payments calculated as one full month's pay plus half that sum for every year the officer served with the force - and a generous pension.

Officers are also concerned that they may no longer enjoy automatic pay rises. Under existing law, officers' wages are automatically increased every time the average national wage grows by 5 per cent. However, if the prepared amendment to the law on officers' service is passed - which would bring police wages under the law on state budget, approved annually by the cabinet and by parliament - wages would no longer increase automatically.

Representatives of the police union said that the majority of officers leaving the force were driven away by worries that they would lose their benefits.

"Cabinet statements and declarations that suggest officers will lose certain social benefits that they are granted under the current legislation are leading the majority of these policemen to hand in their notice," said Štefan Dvorský head of the police union.

However, some of the 372 officers who handed in their notice within four weeks of Interior Minister Vladimír Palko taking office admitted they were leaving because they had received better offers.

Boris Ažaltovic, spokesman for Palko, told The Slovak Spectator that on average Slovak officers earned Sk19,375 ($475) per month, which is considerably higher than the current average national wage of about Sk13,000 ($317) per month. Nevertheless, some officers said they could get better money elsewhere - and more respect.

"I have my own reasons [for leaving the force]. I simply received a more lucrative offer. My new employers will pay me twice as much [as I earn now] and on top of that, they will also respect me," said Jaroslav Huba, a district police chief in Bratislava.

Many of the policemen leaving the force are expected to go to work for local police units run by municipal governments. A number of state officers have already applied for jobs with the city police force in the western city of Trenčín, which is planning to expand by 14 employees next year, according to the Pravda daily.

An extensive survey published in March 2000 showed that the profession was held in low esteem by the public, and that nearly 50 per cent of people had no trust in the Slovak police at all.

Palko insisted that the rumours that officers would lose their benefits were untrue. When taking office, the minister pledged that he would "defend the substantial needs and interests of the members of the police force in the sphere of social security".

The minister insisted that he was going to keep his word.

"I would be very sorry if any policeman left the state service because of these false rumours," he said.

In addition, Ažaltovic said that the high number of officers leaving the force was nothing unusual, and that such an exchange of staff happens at the end of every year.

"This year a total of 707 officers handed in requests to leave the force, while last year it was a total of 722," Ažaltovic said.

In response to media reports about officers leaving the force, Palko rushed to state publicly that officers would be guaranteed two full months' wages every year as a bonus, on top of their 12 regular pay packets.

"This will be the first time ever that officers will receive 14 months' wages in a year," Ažaltovic said.

Ažaltovic added that following the minister's reassuring statements that officers were not going to lose their benefits, as many as 50 officers had withdrawn their notice to quit.

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