The dissatisfaction among West Virginia school teachers, school staff and public employees over their pay and health insurance is rising from simmer to boil.
Much of the anger is bubbling up from school teachers. In county after county, teachers are holding informational meetings to learn more about the proposals for their pay and health insurance and then deciding what, if any, action to take.
Several counties have already voted to stage a one-day strike and others may follow. It is illegal for public employees to strike, but a one-day walkout probably won’t get them into trouble.
Teachers struck in 1990 in West Virginia and stayed out for eleven days. They finally returned to work after Governor Gaston Caperton and legislative leaders agreed to better pay and other benefits.
It’s unclear how big this teacher protest will become or how long it will last, but it is evident from the meetings so far that the anger is real and widespread. It’s also worth noting that at some of the meetings the teachers are drawing popular support from parents.
This is strictly anecdotal, but a Twitter poll I took yesterday found that, out of about 600 respondents, 58 percent “strongly support” a job action by the teachers, while 23 “strongly oppose.” Thirteen percent “somewhat support” the teachers, while six percent “somewhat oppose.”
So far, Governor Justice is sticking with his plan for a one percent raise each of the next two years for public employees and school staff, with a one percent raise each of the next five years for teachers.
Teachers also get an incremental raise every year based on experience, so when those two are combined teachers will see their base pay increase between $4,000 and $5,000 over the five years.
Justice said on Talkline Tuesday that he badly wants to give teachers and public employees a bigger raise, but he also does not want to over commit state spending just as the economy is beginning to come back.
Leaders of the two teacher unions—the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers West Virginia—say the raise proposal is not enough. WVEA President Dale Lee said on Talkline that the Legislature promised in 2014 to raise the teacher starting salary by about $10,000, to $43,000, by 2019.
Lee wants the Governor and the Legislature to put dollars behind that promise.
Meanwhile, it appears PEIA is backing away from a controversial health maintenance program called Go365. Many state employees were upset that they were required to enter personal health information or be subject to higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Instead, the program will be optional.
That will assuage some of the public employee concerns, but not all. Many complain that their health care costs are going up, but their salaries remain static so they are losing ground.
The complaints are being heard at the Capitol, where there’s increasing talk about trying to provide a bigger raise. House Speaker Tim Armstead, during an appearance on Talkline, emphasized that the House has gotten the message.
“We’re spending a great deal of our time each day trying to look at it within the resources that we have, what is the best way that we can help our teachers and our public employees,” he said.
The success or failure of bills often rests on what lawmakers are hearing from their constituents. Most DO pay attention to their emails, phone calls and texts.
It’s too early to predict whether the pay raise proposal for teachers and public employees will grow, but it is evident that these teacher meetings and rolling walkouts are getting the attention of lawmakers.