MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even those without skin in the game braved the cold Saturday, joining public employees to rally in Monongalia and Harrison counties.
Around 200 people, including teachers, cooks, bus drivers, janitors, and even several state legislators, were rallying on Emily Drive in Clarksburg before temperatures had even cracked 30 degrees.
“It’s time,” said Jennifer Bates, a 4th grade teacher at West Milford Elementary School. “It’s time to hear our voice. We love our jobs. We want to do our jobs, but we can’t do our jobs if this continues. There’s just no way.”
Similarly, around 100 educators — including several from Marion County Schools — demonstrated at the WVU Coliseum ahead of the Mountaineer’s 4 p.m. tip versus Kansas State.
“We’re standing here for our fellow police men, our fellow firefighters, our fellow WVU employees — the people who can’t be out here today,” said Suha Beck, a science teacher at Westwood Middle School in Morgantown.
Like thousands across West Virginia, Beck has watched her Public Employee’s Insurance Agency (PEIA) health insurance costs rise rapidly in the last five years due to annual medical inflation costs.
“Personally, for my family, the (deductible) would be over $6,000,” Beck said. “And that would be hard on my family.”
Teachers, service personnel, and other public employees rallying Saturday said a one percent pay raise would not make a dent in the annual rising costs of both premiums and deductibles.
“A one percent raise doesn’t even cover the cost of the healthcare,” said Westwood Middle special education teacher Carlene Rhodes.
CHARLESTON’S RESPONSE TO TEACHER STRIFE
But on Friday, that’s exactly what the West Virginia State Senate agreed to unanimously pass — Governor Jim Justice’s across the board one percent pay raise for the next five years.
“It’s a slap in the face to me,” Rhodes said.
Tracy Ash, a teacher at South Harrison High School, said the passage of S.B. 267 demonstrates that the Legislature’s priority is not in education.
“They’ve made that very, very clear,” Ash said.
That’s what drove Ash, carrying a literal ‘last straw’ during the demonstration, out to Emily Drive on a cold, overcast Saturday morning in early February.
“We’re out here rallying peacefully,” she said. “We need the changes. Make the changes.”
About 40 miles north in Monongalia County, Kelly Rose, whose husband is employed by West Virginia University, said it’s become increasingly difficult to afford PEIA’s coverage.
“Everything is increasing and increasing,” Rose said. “And nobody has got the money coming in to be able to supplement that gap.”
And that, according to Jennifer Bates, is at a time when the Legislature has shown a willingness to slash funding for education — particularly higher education.
“They keep taking and taking and taking,” Bates said. “We won’t have any left to give. We won’t be able to get to work to teach the children.”
Bates’ cohort Suha Beck said, ultimately, the current Legislature has shown their priorities don’t mix with public education. Instead, those priorities have included a new proposal to repeal the business inventory tax, which would lead to reduced funding to County Boards of Education at a time when employees claim they are underpaid and their benefits are declining — all while West Virginia averages nearly 13 teacher vacancies per county.
“As the sign says, respect education or expect the fall of our nation,” Beck said.
PEIA’S IMPACT REACHES BEYOND CLASSROOMS
Teachers are not alone, though.
“That includes teachers, cooks, aids, bus drivers, counselors,” said Sherry Lewis, the head cook at Robert C. Byrd High School in Clarksburg. “Everybody: janitors, the whole school system, statewide.”
Lewis, too, is frustrated with the State Legislature and the rising costs of PEIA.
“I’d just as soon do away with PEIA, if that’s what they’re going to do,” Lewis said.
Those challenges aren’t exclusive to public school employees, either. Kelly Rose said higher education, which is state-funded, deals with the exact same issues.
“His premiums have gone up,” Rose said, referring to her husband’s PEIA insurance. “Our co-pays went up last year, I think it was. Just a regular office visit was about the price that a specialist used to be.”
Rose, a resident of Marion County, joined a number of people from the North Central West Virginia chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to stand in solidarity with teachers and all public employees.
“Everybody in the state can benefit from help with PEIA, increase in wages,” she said. “It’s something that, if we all are together, we have a lot more power than if we’re separate.”
STANDING IN SOLIDARITY
Spend enough time at enough teacher rallies, and you begin to notice two key opinions: First, PEIA is a problem. The second is more abstract in nature: how to stay unified in face of that problem.
“We have to stand united; everybody — the whole nine yards,” Sherry Lewis said.
Demonstrators on Saturday in Monongalia and Harrison counties showed they were connected by more than just an interstate.
“We’re a team,” Suha Beck said. “We’re a family, and we demand respect.”
But that team isn’t complete without support in their communities. On that end, Tracy Ash said it’s been a challenge to keep people who aren’t involved on a daily basis up to speed with this complex and consistently evolving issue.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that goes out there,” Ash said. “Sometimes people are unclear. So, the more people that attend the meetings, they get informed, and they can see what we’re trying to fight for.”
That’s why Austin Porter, a resident of Monongalia County, is so adamant about supporting the demonstrators.
“We rank 48th in terms of teacher pay,” Porter said. “There’s over 700 (teacher) vacancies in this state. I mean, we need to educate our young people, and telling teachers that they are going to take less money home than they did before? It’s disgraceful, it’s stupid, it’s self-defeating. I don’t know why a teacher would come here to work.”
Porter formed this opinion, not only from living in West Virginia for the past nine years, but with the help of his wife — a WVU employee.
“We need to treat our teachers right if we’re going to have educated students that can contribute to the state and who might want to remain here and help build the new industries that, for some reason or another, we don’t seem to be interested in right now,” he said.
A WORK STOPPAGE?
Depending on who you talk to, there are different levels of engagement on the concept of a strike or work stoppage among teachers in West Virginia.
“That’s a last resort,” Carlene Rhodes said. “We’re talking about it.”
They’re talking about more than work stoppages, though. In addition to the demonstrations and rallies designed to drum up support, public employees have also been hosting informational meetings and town halls in the hopes of keeping their worried communities informed. Suha Beck said they’ll stick with these types of initiatives until there is no other option.
“Our children come first, our students come first,” she said. “But, if we have to, we will resort to strike.”
Saturday’s demonstrations won’t be the end of activities in North Central West Virginia. In Marion County, teachers will meet Wednesday after school with union representatives. Public employees have scheduled a rally in the Preston County seat of Kingwood next Friday. Another legislative town hall is scheduled in Fairmont, open to everyone, next Saturday.
Kelly Rose said, without hesitation, she supports these measures. But, if it comes to a strike, organizations like hers will support the work stoppage.
“One of the main things we wanted to do is come out and show support and show solidarity for West Virginia workers who deserve better than what they’re getting,” she said. “And, if they’re ready to demand it, we’re ready to be behind them 100 percent.”
A work stoppage, which many teachers and public employees still don’t want to acknowledge as a possibility, may be the final recourse. And, speaking only for herself, Sherry Lewis said the teachers can count on the support of at least one school cook.
“Yes,” Lewis said. “I will stand up for my rights.”
WAJR’s Alex Wiederspiel and Brittany Murray contributed to this report.