West Virginia House backs some pay increases

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The pay of West Virginia jail and prison guards would increase by $6,000 over three years, raises intended to help fill hundreds of vacancies and reduce turnover, under legislation approved unanimously Monday by the House of Delegates.
The $2,000 annual raises for guards starting July 1 are backed by Gov. Jim Justice. They would apply to staff at state prisons, regional jails and juvenile facilities who have direct contact with inmates, House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson said.
“This is a big emergency,” Nelson said.
In August, corrections officials said low pay remained a fundamental problem behind high turnover and trouble filing about 600 staff vacancies despite a $1 an hour increase added by the Justice administration. That raised starting pay to $11.87 an hour or $24,664 a year.
In December, Justice authorized using the West Virginia National Guard to help keep watch over lockups until legislative and operational solutions could be implemented.
The state pays about $15,000 to train correction officers and about 60 percent currently leave within the first year and a half, said Delegate Tom Fast, member of a special oversight committee. As a result, they have to pay millions of dollars in overtime to remaining officers, he said.
The $6,000 eventual increase will put West Virginia guard salaries in “at least the median range” of pay around the country, Fast said. The House last week voted down amendments for bigger increases or applying them to more corrections personnel with Nelson saying they can’t afford more right now.
Later Monday, a divided House argued over teachers’ pay, ultimately rejecting efforts to give them and other public school personnel a 3 percent pay raise starting July 1. One variation on that approach failed adoption on a 50-50 tie vote.
Instead, the House advanced for a floor vote Tuesday the Finance Committee version, authorizing a 2 percent hike next year and 1 percent raises the following three years. Teachers also get 1.5 percent annual step increases.
The Senate has approved and Justice has advocated 1 percent teacher raises each of the next five years, with Justice promising the revisit the issue when the state’s finances improve more.
Union leaders said Monday that teachers across West Virginia have overwhelmingly authorized them to call job actions, which could include walkouts.
One key issue is threatened increases in the insurance premiums and deductibles for school staff and state workers, which Justice and legislative leaders last week promised to halt for a year by finding another $29 million of state funding. Another is the absence of raises for the past four years and unhappiness with the 1 percent proposal.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Monday that they want to see action toward a long-term insurance fix, addressing lagging pay and ending attacks on their seniority system and union representation.
“These folks need to see serious commitments,” added Christine Campbell, American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president. “Our folks are angry.”