Updated: Sunday, Feb. 11 at 10:25 p.m.
State leaders of unions representing teachers and school service personnel have been authorized to take statewide action.
More than 150 union members representing all 55 counties met with state chapter presidents Dale Lee, of the West Virginia Education Association, and Christine Campbell, of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
Fueled by growing frustrations over teacher pay, employment vacancies and a dwindling benefits package, Lee and Campbell described the authorization for action as “overwhelmingly in support.” Neither would provide an exact count of the vote.
Both called this weekend’s meeting in Flatwoods “historic,” noting that it was the first time representatives of both organizations had come together.
However, authorization for a work action isn’t necessarily imminent or guaranteed, Lee and Campbell said, and they are hoping to see the legislative process satisfy their collective hopes.
According to The National Education Association, a nationwide group to which WVEA belongs, West Virginia was 48th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in average teacher pay in 2017. NEA’s website states that the states’s beginning teacher salary is $32,435 and the average salary is $44,701.
Proposed changes to PEIA, the insurance provider for teachers and other state employees, has called for premium and deductible increases, as well as penalties for not fulfilling the requirements of a wellness program. The PEIA Finance Board has scheduled public hearings on the proposed changes across the state this week.
However, uncertainties over whether a salary increase — specifically, how much — and if these proposed changes to PEIA will take place is what has led to the authorization of a work action.
“It is open ended,” Campbell said of what might come next. “It was an authorization from the counties to call on state leadership [of the unions] for action, if needed.”
Campbell explained that union members are expecting to “see evidence of priorities” from legislative leaders as session’s end draws closer. The 60-day session ends March 10.
Teachers and school services personnel have organized walk-ins and other events across the state in recent weeks, including a work stoppage and rally at the Capitol on Friday, Feb. 2 by those from Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties. Workers from elsewhere also joined as a result of weather closing school in their counties. Lee said to expect those types of actions to continue.
“People are angry and they are going to continue to do these activities,” he said.
“Too many years have gone by with a ‘next year,’ ” Campbell said, noting that state government leaders have promised teacher pay raises and a PEIA fix in the past, but have failed to deliver.
Gov. Jim Justice joined Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead at a Thursday news conference to discuss a freeze on proposed changes to PEIA benefits -- including premium and deductible increases.
Justice and Carmichael agreed during the press conference that a 1-1-1-1-1 formula (a 1-percent raise in each of the next five years) was the conservative and smart way forward -- given that state revenues are still stabilizing and the future is uncertain. Armstead noted that he believes a 2-1-1-1 formula (a 2-percent pay increase in the first year and an additional 1-percent raise in each of following three years) was possible.
The AFT-WV and WVEA scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. Monday at the Capitol. Additionally, a teachers’ rally is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 17, also at the Capitol.