Why West Virginia Teachers Are Demanding Higher Pay and Improved Benefits
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Thousands of public school teachers across West Virginia walked off the job today. They're demanding better pay and benefits from state lawmakers. Every public school in the state closed because of the walkout. Dave Mistich from West Virginia Public Broadcasting joins us now from Charleston. Hi there.
DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Hiya, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You've been speaking with teachers who are protesting at the Statehouse today. What have they told you?
MISTICH: Well, the big thing that we've heard the most is that they feel like their paycheck has been chipping away. Granted, they've just been offered a 4 percent raise. The governor just signed a bill last night. But rising health care costs, they say, is cutting into their pay even with this 4 percent increase. I spoke with Fred Albert. He's a middle school math teacher at DuPont Middle here in Kanawha County. He also represents the American Federation of Teachers. And here's what he had to say.
FRED ALBERT: Those premiums have been going up, the copays have been going up, but our paychecks have not been keeping up. They have not been increasing. So the more money we are taking out of our pocket to pay for health care, we consider that a pay cut.
MISTICH: I should point out that the Public Employees Insurance Agency has called for a freeze on proposed changes to benefits, and as of right now that's going to be frozen for a year. But in the long term, they're still not satisfied.
SHAPIRO: It's not unusual to hear about a dispute over teacher pay, but a walkout across every school in the state seems dramatic. How did it reach this point?
MISTICH: Well, again, the Public Employees Insurance Agency - PEIA, as it's known - has been a conversation here at the Statehouse for years. I should point out that the Democrats had held control of the Legislature for 83 years up until 2014. And since then, especially, that conversation has grown and grown and grown. We've heard from a lot of lawmakers, particularly Republicans who hold the majority here, that say that they're doing as much as they can given the economic situation. They say that we have just turned the corner here in West Virginia. Last year they had to fill a $500 million budget hole, and this year things are only looking better. I spoke to House Finance Chair Eric Nelson, and here's what he had to say about the current situation.
ERIC NELSON: We've done as much fiscally as we can in this budget right now. You're damn right I'd like to do - we'd all like to do a lot more. But we've got to work within the body of what we have.
SHAPIRO: So what happens after this? Is there a chance that it could stretch into next week and school could remain closed?
MISTICH: I guess at this point we don't know yet. I've spoken to a couple local leaders of the unions, and they say - they call this movement organic. They didn't expect it to come to this point. But moving forward, the state attorney general has offered some legal assistance to the state school board or any other agency that would like to file an injunction to get the teachers back to work. So at this point I think we're waiting to see where this goes. Again, I think it's in the hands of all the teachers out there moving forward.
SHAPIRO: What have you heard from the almost 300,000 students and their parents who can't go to school today?
MISTICH: Right. Well, of course, you know, with anything like this we've heard from parents that are supportive of teachers. We've heard from parents that have said that that's a giant burden with trying to take care of their kids while they're - while they need to get to work. There have been places all over the state that have taken care of or have taken in children that are supposed to be in school today and put them in churches or community centers or resource centers all across the state, giving them meals and finding them things to do and occupying them over the course of the day. We heard about schools all across the state that were filling backpacks and preparing food for students while they were going to be out of the classroom. So there's a lot of effort. Some of it's coming from teachers, others just other parts of the community.
SHAPIRO: Dave Mistich from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, thanks for joining us.
MISTICH: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.