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Citing planned protest, Highways seeks to limit turnout at mass employee grievance

Attorneys for the West Virginia Division of Highways are asking the state Public Employees Grievance Board to make an exception to a law that allows grievants to attend their grievance hearings without having to take time off from work or use leave time.

In a letter to the board, Highways attorney Rebecca McDonald asked whether the law should apply to an upcoming mediation hearing for a mass grievance currently involving 408 employees over the division’s failure to upgrade its pay grades, as mandated by a 2017 law.

“Does a protest rally fall within the provision granting grievants the right to attend a grievance proceeding?” she asked the board.

In the letter, McDonald stated that the grievants intend to stage a “protest rally” outside of Grievance Board offices prior to the Oct. 18 mediation hearing.

“The DoH is not required to grant paid time off for grievants to attend a protest rally, and submits that the intent of the rally has nothing to do with preparing for a grievance,” she wrote in the Sept. 12 letter. “Rather, it is to impede the DoH’s operation, and to forward the agenda of Union Local 170.”

McDonald’s letter included copies of employee emails and Facebook pages referring to a “Highways Workers Tired of Waiting” rally outside the Grievance Board offices.

In March, an initial group of about 280 Highways employees filed a mass personnel grievance, contending that the division had failed to comply with the 2017 law directing the division to address ongoing hiring and retention problems, in part, by developing a more competitive pay schedule.

That number has since reached 408 and continues to grow, according to Public Employees Union Local UE 170 field organizer Gordon Simmons.

Simmons confirmed Monday that the union plans to cheer on Highways grievants as they walk from the parking lot to the Grievance Board offices in the Schoenbaum Center, on Charleston’s West Side, prior to the hearing, but he said that hardly constitutes a protest rally.

“To me, it shows a certain level of anxiety and insecurity on the part of the DOH over their position in this matter, if they’re dead-set on not allowing grievants to participate,” he said.

In the letter seeking permission from the Grievance Board to give Highways supervisors discretion to deny leave time for grievants to attend the mediation hearing, McDonald said having such large numbers of employees off work at the same time “will most assuredly effect the agency’s efficient operation.”

Simmons, however, said plans are to have about 80 delegates representing the 10 Highways districts attend the mediation hearing. He said it is important to have grievants in attendance at the hearing, in the event the division makes a counterproposal to a proposal offered by the grievants to substantially improve pay grades for Highways employees.

The grievants contend that low pay, compared to similar jobs in the private sector, has resulted in high turnover and vacancy rates at Highways, making it difficult to keep up with road maintenance and construction demands.

The Facebook page cited in McDonald’s letter states: “Empty promises and agency inactivity will not fix our roads and bridges, nor will reliance on highly paid private contractors, often from out-of-state.”

Simmons said Grievance Board officials have scheduled a telephone conference call to address Highways’ request on Oct. 17.

“I suspect this is coming from high up in the [Transportation] secretary’s office,” Simmons said Monday.

Last month, Chief Administrative Law Judge Billie Thacker Catlett rejected motions by Highways attorneys to dismiss the case, stating, “Grievants have made a proper allegation of discrimination under the grievance procedure. ... Grievants have a right to present their evidence and make arguments on their legal issues.”

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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