Anyone walking or driving through downtown Lewisburg on Thursday could hear the constant scattered honks from cars passing through the main intersection, as people showed support for the large gathering of teachers assembled in town.
With most wearing red jackets or other bright colors and holding homemade signs, school employees from every local school were in attendance to participate in a statewide walkout. The walkout was spurred on by escalating tensions involving rising health care costs and stagnant wage issues for employees.
Across the state, public schools were closed Thursday, Feb. 22 and Friday, Feb. 23 for the walkout. The West Virginia Education Association says the difference between a walkout and a strike is that a strike has no end date, as opposed to this scheduled two-day event. Hoping to get the attention of legislators, this is the first scheduled walkout in nearly 30 years.
Jim Allder, band director and Greenbrier East High School, said, “I’m really impressed with the support we are getting from the community. Lots of honks of support show that we are valued. Hopefully, that support continues through to help us afford to be able to do our jobs.”
Problems with the Public Health Insurance Agency (PEIA), have caused heath care costs to rise dramatically for state workers and their families. With Governor Jim Justice stalling permanent changes by issuing a freeze on PEIA, the AFT-West Virginia Teachers’ Union President Christine Campbell released the following statement: “A freeze is not a fix. While we’re glad our elected leaders are focusing on PEIA and listening to our concerns, the dedicated employees of West Virginia deserve real solutions. PEIA is not fixed until the Governor and legislative leaders identify a dedicated, sustainable funding stream for the plan. Promises won’t pay the bills.”
Gov. Justice signed legislation the Wednesday before the walkout which will “provide teachers, school service personnel and state police with a two percent pay increase starting in July, and has taken the steps in the budget to include a two percent pay raise for all other state employees effective July 1 as well,” according to a press release provided from the Governor’s office. It continues, “Teachers are also scheduled to get an additional one percent hike in each of the following two years, FY 2020 and 2021, while school service personnel and state police will get an additional one percent in FY 2020.”
The increasing health care costs associated with PEIA outpace meager wage increases, and with a new proposal to use total family income to determine insurance premiums and deductibles, some state employees could see their premiums increase over 100 percent of what they are currently.
Local English teacher Barry Rich, who participated in the rally downtown, said, “The government and legislature caused this. Without proper PEIA funding, there’s no point to the pay raise. Teachers know the pay isn’t great going into this job, but we have that promise that there was going to continue to be good health care coverage for teachers and service personnel, but that promise has been broken.”