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CHARLESTON — West Virginia teachers are weighing their options over a lack of pay hikes and health insurance issues, pressuring lawmakers to remedy a situation that could lead to a strike.

“We may be staring down the barrel of a teachers strike,” said Del. Ed Evans (D-McDowell County).

Evans blasted Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed 1 percent pay raise for teachers and other public service personnel this year, with additional 1-percent per year raises for the following four years.

“I do not support the Governor’s proposal,” he said. “It’s not enough. I think it should be a minimum 5 percent across-the-board raise (for the next fiscal year) and go from there.”

Evans is also concerned about the PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency), with increasing costs in premiums and a program called Go365.

“The PEIA was given to teachers and public employees years ago in lieu of a pay raise,” he said. “But it’s becoming an albatross around people’s necks. There is a public outcry to find something else.”

With no pay increases but more and more money taken out for insurance premiums, public employees are seeing less and less in their paychecks, he said.

But the one issue that has distressed many teachers, he said, is the Go365, an addition to the PEIA’s health program.

Beginning July 1, participation will be a requirement as it stands now to avoid paying more for insurance, according to the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA).

Go365 requires participants to earn a certain level of points in the program by May 15 of each year in order to avoid penalties for the following year, including an additional $500 deductible and a $25 a month premium increase.

Those points are earned by doing things like using a Fitbit (a device worn like a watch that measures items like the number of steps taken each day) and logging activities online.

Evans said a person’s waist circumference measurement is also required. “This is invasive,” he added.

“Whatever money we are putting into Go365 would best be put into lowering the premiums for people who have policies,” he said. “Why are we adding another level of red tape to the insurance?”

Evans said legislators are all about cutting out red tape, “but nobody is doing anything about it.”

Adding a dedicated revenue stream to pay for PEIA is the way to go, he said, but legislators are just trying to “nickel and dime” expenditures trying to put together a budget without looking at the big picture.

The PEIA agrees with seeking that revenue stream.

“From the perspective of the PEIA, over the years, health care costs continue to inflate as new technologies, sciences and medications are researched and implemented,” said Diane Holley-Brown, PEIA director of communications. “The main issue which PEIA has seen and has suggested to our state legislators is to seek an ongoing revenue stream to fund PEIA. There has been many discussions thus far with legislators about PEIA funding, which is of interest to many.”

Del. Marty Gearheart (R-Mercer County) agrees with Evans that the 1 percent pay hike is not enough and that the Go365 program is not advisable.

Gearheart is proposing a 2.5 percent pay hike, using about $20 million that is currently in line items associated with community and technical colleges and the Department of Commerce’s development office and tourism efforts.

Gearheart said he understands those functions are needed, but public education is a requirement.

“We have to put teachers in the classroom,” he said. “You have to pay employees enough to retain them. We slipped down to the point (in public education) we will not have enough remaining employees to cover what is required.”

Gearheart said his plan would give teachers, along with their step increases for experience, on average about $1,700 to $1,800 more a year.

On the insurance side, he wants employees to have more coverage options, and to change the current formula of capping how much the state pays at 80 percent.

“I would like to modify PEIA so employees can choose their coverage … with a higher deductible, for example, so the state can pay 100 percent,” he said.

Employees who don’t usually have a lot of medical expenses could take advantage of that, he said.

Gearheart said the Go365 program is “aggravating people.”

“If the insured does not comply to a variety of fitness items, they are punished by higher deductibles and increases premiums,” he said. “I have complained about that in the finance committee.”

Gearheart said it is akin to “social engineering” and not appropriate.

“Teachers are professionals,” he said. “They don’t have time for games. The program is ill-conceived and an insult to public employees.”

Gearheart said he doesn’t know if the teachers will strike, but “they are serious.”

Providing a good education is a constitutional requirement, he said, not a suggestion.

Both Gwen Lacy, president of the McDowell County WVEA, and Christine Campbell, president of the state American Federation of Teachers (AFT), echo many of the legislators’ concerns.

“That 1-percent pay hike is a slap in the face,” Lacy said.

A meeting is scheduled for tonight in Welch for teachers, she said, to discuss all of these issues.

“It will give us feedback on how people will feel about what we should do,” she said, adding that she has “no clue” if a strike will be considered.

The insurance issue is big, she said, adding that the PEIA has done nothing but increase the payments it receives from public employees.

“The state should pay bigger portions,” she said. “It was given to teachers and education employees instead of a pay raise and now we have to pay for it … and each year we pay more and more.”

The proposed raise by Justice (about $400 a year) would not cover the increases in premiums for insurance each year, she added.

Lacy, a teacher at Fall River Elementary, is in her 40th year of teaching and has served about 15 as president of the county WVEA.

“We would just like the Legislature to fix the PEIA and not play games with teachers and public employees and all state employees,” she said.

Campbell said the state is already facing a shortage of teachers with 725 current vacancies.

“That’s because the living wage has deteriorated with the increase in health care costs,” she said, adding that it leads to a reduction in benefits and the lack of funding does not meet the average 6 percent increase in the cost of insurance premiums a year.

Campbell said employees are having a hard time understanding “why we are not making education a priority,” and instead introducing bills about school choice and homeschool options.

“Enough is enough,” she said. “Public education is funded by taxpayer dollars and we have to make sure we are giving our schools the proper funding to get the education outcome we all want.”

Campbell said all surrounding states pay teachers and service personnel more and “we are never going to compete … we need to be more competitive.”

Legislators often talk about attracting businesses by doing things like getting rid of the machinery, equipment and inventory tax (which funds local public schools), but they miss an important point, she said.

“The first thing (prospective) businesses ask is, ‘How are your schools?’” she said. “We can’t expect to have a better education outcome when we don’t have certified people in the classrooms.”

Campbell said it will take a combination of several factors, including salary increases and a change in the cost of insurance to fix the problem.

She also calls the Go365 program “invasive.”

“Not only is it invasive, it was sold as a rewards program,” she said. “But we have a system that is punitive.”

Legislators need to step up to the plate, she said. “People are not respecting the work, time and energy of teachers and the fact they are staying here and working harder.”

Campbell said legislators often listen, but they don’t act.

“We want legislators to actually respond to their constituents,” she said. “The consensus right now is they are listening but you have to have a bill to actually make change.”

Campbell said when asked what they are doing about it, they don’t say anything of note.

“With silence comes more fear, more frustration,” she said, adding that a strike is not something cosidered first though.

“Nobody wants to strike,” she said. “We want any kind of work stoppage to be an absolute last resort.”’

Campbell said the last time teachers went on strike in West Virginia was in 1990, and it was the first statewide teachers strike in the state’s history.

That 11-day strike was also about low pay and resulted in several pay increases and other changes over the next few years.

According to wvencyclopedia.org, it ended when Gov. Gaston Caperton initiated a series of town meetings across the state to discuss the future of education in West Virginia.

“Those meetings and continuing discussions with educators helped to form the basis of the legislature’s special session on education in August 1990,” the website says. “Teachers secured significant pay raises during the next three years and budgets were provided for faculty senates in each school, giving teachers direct input into school policies and operations. New training and support programs for teachers were developed to ensure better classroom instruction.”

On the WVEA website, WVEA President Dale Lee (on leave from his teaching position at Princeton High School to serve as president) said elected leaders and policymakers talk about the importance of public education and education employees but have done nothing to make salaries more competitive or improve working conditions.

“A 1 percent salary increase will not keep pace with our surrounding states or move us from our current ranking of 48th in the nation in average teacher salaries,” Lee said. “Year after year we are seeing vacancies in our schools filled by individuals who are not fully certified for the positions – this year that number is over 700 positions all over the state in every certification area, including elementary, education, English and special education.”

According to the website teacherportal.com, the average starting salary for teachers in West Virginia is $32,533 with the average overall salary at $45,453.

Those figures in nearby states are:

• Virginia: $37,848 and $48,670.

• Tennessee: $34,098 and $47,563.

• Ohio: $33,096 and $56,307.

• Kentucky: $35,166 and $50,203.

• Pennsylvania: $41,901 and $62,994.

 — Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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