West Virginia teachers: Statewide walkout over pay, benefits

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia public school teachers launched a statewide walkout Thursday that canceled classes in all 55 counties, protesting over pay hikes signed by the governor hours earlier that the teachers say don’t go far enough.

Thousands of teachers and support staff converged at the gold domed Capitol in Charleston on Thursday, seeking to pressure lawmakers who are still considering other proposals for them. It was their first statewide strike since 1990 in West Virginia, where teacher pay ranks 48th in the nation.

The walkout is scheduled for two days, and teachers say they’re willing to go longer if need be.

Chants of “Do your job so I can do mine” reverberated throughout the Capitol halls, along with other slogans including “55 strong” — a reference to the state’s 55 counties.

Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday night signed a 2 percent raise next year for teachers, followed by 1 percent raises the following two years. But teachers say the increases are too stingy. They also complain about projected increases in health insurance costs.

“You have all these state employees out here who are furious,” said Melanie Pinkerman, a counselor at Huntington High School and one of those protesting. She held up a protest sign mocking the governor, joined by other demonstrators outside the House of Delegates chambers.

Justice on Wednesday night signed a 2 percent raise next year for teachers, followed by 1 percent raises the following two years. The average teacher salary in West Virginia is $45,622, well below the national average is $58,353. When the teachers last struck statewide in 1990, their pay ranked 49th in the nation.

Health insurances costs also remained a big sticking point. The Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, has agreed to freeze health insurance premiums and rates for the next fiscal year for teachers and other workers. The House passed legislation to transfer $29 million from the rainy day fund to freeze those rates, a move that awaits state Senate action.

Ted Cheatham, director of that agency, has said that because of medical inflation, about $50 million to $70 million would be needed annually to keep the program functioning as it currently does.

After a 90-minute debate Thursday, the House also unanimously passed a bill to dedicate the first 20 percent of any general revenue surplus toward a separate fund aimed at stabilizing the Public Employees Insurance Agency, a state entity that administers health care programs for public workers, including teachers.

Teachers are worried that the solution being proposed is only temporary or worse, especially if the state surplus turns out to be minimal.

Pinkerman, a single mother with a daughter in college, said she continues to look for jobs in neighboring Ohio and Kentucky, where the pay is better. She said the 4 percent combined raise, which was reduced from a 5 percent overall increase passed by the Senate, “is a huge slap in the face.”

“College is expensive.There’s always things you have to buy, constantly,” Pinkerman said. “It’s difficult whenever my premium keeps going up. My deductible’s high. It’s just really hard to make it. And I’m not even the worst-case scenario. I only have one child. What about people that have two, three, four, five kids?”

The teachers’ walkout is expected to continue Friday though many said they are willing to continue striking next week if necessary.

“If our people tell us to, then that’s what we’ll do,” said Kari Wenck, a fourth-grade teacher at Central City Elementary in Huntington.