Local Educators Stage Demonstration in Wheeling; Marshall County Voting on Potential Walkout

Photo by Scott McCloskey Nearly a dozen Ohio County teachers assemble at the corner of National Road and W.Va. 88 in the Woodsdale section of Wheeling on Monday afternoon to alert the public about their concerns with pay and benefits.

WHEELING — Teachers in Ohio County and throughout West Virginia are working to educate the public about rising Public Employee Insurance Agency premiums — and how they don’t believe a proposed 1-percent pay raise will help them cover the cost of health insurance.

Ohio County teachers staged informational pickets after school on Monday at the intersection of Bethany Pike and National Road in Wheeling, in addition to other locations in the county.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Marshall County, school employees began a vote to determine whether there is support among the teachers for a potential walkout. Teachers and school counselors in the county each were given a ballot, with voting to conclude today, according to Marshall County Education Association President Matt Mandarino.

“This is only an authorization vote,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a walkout would occur if it passes. It only gives us an authorization to call for a walkout if we exhaust all other options.”

Mandarino said he has been asked by the West Virginia Education Association not to share the results of the walkout authorization vote with media when it is complete.

The average teacher in West Virginia earns about $45,000 annually, meaning a proposed 1-percent raise presently being considered in the West Virginia Legislature would give the teacher at that level an additional $450 a year.

But not really, the teachers maintain.

A proposed hike in PEIA health care rates could erase any gains from the wage increase in just one or two months.

One Ohio County teacher protesting in front of Sheetz in Woodsdale Monday said it was likely her family’s monthly premium would double under the proposed PEIA plans — from about $300 to over $600 a month.

“The pay raise won’t cover our increase in health insurance — not even close,” said Brandy LaFlam.

Under the terms of an 80-20 rule in West Virginia, the state pays 80 percent of a state employees premiums, while the state pays 20 percent. Gov. Jim Justice directed the Legislature to allocate $10 million more to shore up PEIA this year, forcing the premiums paid by employees to also increase.

While the issue of PEIA costs is first on the list of teachers’ concerns, the 1 percent pay raise actually comes in third place.

Between them — second on the list — is the teachers’ objection to the elimination of seniority status, and how their time as teachers wouldn’t be considered if there is a layoff in their school districts.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said teachers with whom he has been corresponding also have voiced stronger opinions about the health insurance increase than the pay increase — and he is glad to hear that.

PEIA increases are not a matter of the State Legislature, but are set through actions by the PEIA board, he said.

The teachers are contacting lawmakers about proposed new rates, and legislators are conveying these concerns to the office of Gov. Jim Justice, he said.

“I sympathize with the teachers,” he said. “PEIA is a disaster by the way it is designed. Anytime there are changes to the system, some benefit, while some obviously don’t.”

The Legislature already has worked to address some issues, Ferns said. For example, it is possible that future PEIA premiums for families with two sources of income could be based on the average wage of the two wage earners, rather than their combined wage.

Also, lawmakers aren’t presently considering any bills pertaining to teachers’ seniority, he said. Such legislation was unsuccessful in 2017.

But he also doesn’t think a larger pay increase for teachers is in the works this year, as the state seeks to tighten financial belts.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, expressed skepticism with the 1 percent teachers wage increase as state leaders tout that West Virginia is doing well financially, while money is being routed to other areas such as tourism.

“Hopefully leadership gets their priorities in order,” he said. “Currently, they’re more concerned with getting re-elected than they are with assuring those that educate our children and protect our citizens are properly taken care of.”

Teachers in local counties are set to meet at John Marshall High School Thursday to organize for a public town hall meeting, which is set for 4 p.m. Saturday at John Marshall High School.