Despite a deal struck with the governor on Tuesday night that included a 5 percent pay raise, West Virginia teachers will not go back to school today as planned. They are demanding a fix to health care first.
The 5 percent pay raise is working its way through the legislature and has passed in the house on a 98-1 vote. The senate is expected to consider the bill today.
But missing from the deal is a solution for the high premiums many teachers incur under the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
On Feb. 27, when Gov. Jim Justice offered the pay raise, he also promised to assemble a task force that would include teachers to address the health-care problems. In the meantime, the insurance agency has agreed to freeze health-care premiums and rates for 16 months.
“It is important that everyone understand that identifying all of the issues in our health-care program and finding a solution takes time,” the governor said in a statement. “A cure won’t come in 30 minutes, but I can promise you this task force will begin its work immediately.”
Justice has suggested raising revenue to fund health care through taxes on oil and gas, and through gaming revenue generated by sports betting. Insurance may also be opened to bids from health-care companies, he said.
But on Wednesday, the day Justice had declared a “cooling off period” before schools would reopen on Thursday, teachers didn’t appear satisfied with the pay raise and promise to fix health care. They crowded into the capitol singing, “We’re not gonna take it,” according to CNN. They also chanted: “See you Thursday!” and “See you Friday!” outside of the governor’s office.
The teacher strike began Feb. 22 over low wages and the rising cost of health-care premiums. Legislation signed before the strike gave teachers a 2 percent pay raise starting in July, followed by an additional 1 percent hike in each of the next two fiscal years. The raise came with no remedy for rising health care costs.
Striking in West Virginia is illegal. Teachers could be denied pay, suspended, fired, barred from teaching in a public school for a year, charged with a criminal misdemeanor, or even fined or jailed if they do not comply with a court injunction ordering them to return to work.
Photo: Dressed in an Uncle Sam costume, Parry Casto, a 5th-grade teacher at the Explorer Academy in Huntington, W.Va., leads hundreds of teachers in chants outside the state Senate chambers at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on March 1. John Raby/AP
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.