West Virginia teachers lobby for higher pay to cover higher insurance costs

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CHARLESTON, W.Va.-(WTAP) West Virginia teachers will get a 5-year, annual 1% pay raise, but teachers say that raise won't cover their rising insurance premiums.

The teachers came from three southern West Virginia counties, staging a one-day walkout from classes to witness the vote and hold a rally at the capital.

The raises amount to $400 a year, but teachers say proposed changes to the Public Employees Insurance Program - which covers most West Virginia public school employees - will result in an average annual cost increase of $800 per-person.

The Senate bill now heads to the House of Delegates.

Republican State Senator John Unger called the raise "an insult to teachers".

A Wood County delegate says the house is still working on a proposal of its own.

"That's the way the system seems to work," Del. John Kelly said, referring to the teachers' protest, "but we're working on it every day, and it's our anticipation we're going to have something by the end of the session that's going to work for the people in West Virginia."

Meanwhile, Jackson County Schools is making statewide headlines over a letter recently sent to its teachers.

The letter from Superintendent Blaine Hess asks teachers to consider what it calls "the negative impact a work stoppage could have on passage of an upcoming excess levy".

Superintendent Hess adds that excess levy funds employee salaries and benefits.

Hess also cites state code saying personal leave time cannot be used for a work stoppage or a strike.

"That's the extent that I've shared at this point," he told The News Center Friday. "I haven't made any further determinations. I think it's premature for me to do that for Jackson County right now, given the stance of our employees, it's not time to vote or anything on a walkout."

Adena Barnette, President of the Jackson County Education Association, said her membership had mixed reactions to Hess' letter.

She says members have informally discussed the pay raise and proposed changes in public employees insurance benefits, a related issue.

On Thursday, Gov. Jim Justice proposed a modification in changes in public employee insurance premiums made by the Public Employees Insurance Board

Under the governor's proposal, premiums for families with more than one state employee would be based on half of their combined state income. That would result in significantly lower premiums compared to increases scheduled to start on July 1.

The finance board is scheduled to meet on Feb. 20 to consider acting on the proposal.

They plan to contact lawmakers about their concerns, but Barnette adds a teacher strike in her county "is not a top priority" right now.

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