WV’s billionaire governor tells teachers fighting for a living wage to get ‘back in the classrooms’

Photo: WV Governor's Office

West Virginia’s teacher pay ranks 48th in the nation. Their health insurance costs keep climbing. Now, they are on strike.

West Virginia school teachers are among the lowest paid in the entire nation, and they are fed up. For the third day in a row, teachers in all 55 counties reported to the picket lines instead of the classrooms on Monday to demand a living wage.

It is the first teacher work stoppage since 1990, and Mountain State educators say it is long overdue.

“It comes down to we want a fair and steady wage and would like to be out [of] the bottom in teacher pay compared to the rest of the US,” Robert May, a teacher at Chapmanville Middle School, told 50 States of Blue in a Twitter message on Monday.

May added that it is not only about a pay increase, but also about stopping the hemorrhaging of healthcare benefits that is taking a toll on teachers’ — and other state workers’ — pockets.

“Even the raise isn’t as much an issue as the constant changes to our insurance,” May said, adding that saddling public employees with higher insurance costs make proposed small raises for teachers “useless.”

May is far from alone in his frustration.

Cheat Lake Elementary teacher Tess Berkshire told WVNews that trying to give teachers a 1 percent pay raise was simply a “slap in the face” considering how much more insurance would cost.

“That raise came to about $400 a year plus change but PEIA [the state health insurance for teachers and other state workers] costs are expected to be $7,000 extra a year. That’s terrifying,” Berkshire said.

Fixing PEIA, though, is not going to be easy — especially since the legislature has earmarked only a small portion of the needed funds to cover the costs. As a result, the rest of the costs are being filtered down to state workers, which include not only teachers but also 200,000 public workers across the state.

“The issues of PEIA has everything to do with the legislature,” Perry Bryant, a former PEIA Finance Board member explained. “You’ve seen this erosion of the health insurance program because the legislature has not appropriated adequate monies for PEIA. That is the problem.”

West Virginia governor Jim Justice has also not seemed eager to do the heavy lifting needed to work towards a solution to the health care issue, at least not quickly.

On Monday, Justice met with teachers at a town hall in Wheeling. where the billionaire Republican told the teachers to get back to work despite their grievances and low pay.

“I know you are underpaid,” Justice told the teachers. “I’m the guy that ran in with the flag when things got tough and said education should be the centerpiece.”

He added: “You need to be back in the classrooms.”

Justice has proposed tying a PEIA fix to a gas and oil measure that would make it easier for corporations to get access to mineral rights. At the same Wednesday town hall meeting, Justice said he would be “glad to call a special session” to discuss funding PEIA by raising the severance tax on oil and gas producers.

He also said that while teachers should get back to work right away, he would appoint a task force on mineral rights and severance taxes — but that the results from that task force would not be back until May, after the state’s primary. Only then, he stressed, “maybe we can find a solution that satisfies everybody and raises the severance tax on gas.”

The governor, who at one point warned the rowdy crowd of teachers that he could also “get redneck” on them in return, also made it clear asking for a bigger pay raise was a “very dumb move” on the part of the teachers.

For teachers who are striking for a living wage and reasonable healthcare costs, though, Justice’s “redneck” threats and a promise of an eventual PEIA fix did little to encourage them to give up the fight.

On a Monday afternoon rally at the state Capitol building, the teachers vowed to stay out of the classrooms for at least another day.

“We are ready, we are willing. We stand on the right side of public education, by being back here and outside our schools tomorrow,” Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-WV, said during the rally, pledging to picket on.