Negotiations collapsed Wednesday between the West Virginia Division of Highways and more than 400 of its workers who filed grievances against the state for a lack of pay raises, alleging noncompliance with a 2017 law.
John Thompson, an international representative with the United Electrical Workers union, worked with the mediation. After a nearly three-hour, closed-door hearing, he said the talks were unsuccessful.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to resolve the grievance,” he said. “We felt that we gave them an offer that was reasonable, based on the retention raises they gave other similarly situated employees, but they did not accept that. We’re going to go forward with the grievance, but irrespective of what happens with the grievance process, we’re going to continue this fight until justice is won and these employees get what they deserve.”
Troves of grievants, clad in bright green shirts with “Can you see us now?” written across the chest, streamed out of the Public Employees Grievance Board’s office after the hearing, most declining comment due to the ongoing nature of the grievance.
Gary DeLuke, a field organizer for the West Virginia Public Workers Union, said the DOH has been unwilling to upgrade the pay scales for all but a few administrative positions. Legislation passed in 2017 was designed to compel the DOH to make its compensation more competitive to help retain employees, but isn’t living up to its mandate, he said.
“Everybody knows that roads aren’t getting fixed, and it’s because we don’t have enough people working,” he said.
Union officials say the grievants plan to advance proceedings to a Level 3 grievance, which will consist of the grievants and the DOH both making their cases before an administrative law judge.
Beyond the more bureaucratic grievance process, DeLuke said union members also are planning political courses of action. He said they’re reaching out to delegates, senators and candidates seeking their input on events.
“Our leaders in office intended for everybody to see pay improvements to solve this retention problem; that’s not happening,” he said. “The nature of this grievance is entirely political.”
According to Gordon Simmons, a recently retired union field organizer, if lawmakers disagree with the DOH, they could take “remedial action” to force agency compliance. The question is what they think about road workers not getting a pay raise.
“It’s really kind of a case of ‘the emperor has no clothes,’ to be honest,” he said.
After Wednesday’s hearing, two DOH officials declined to comment on the grievances. A DOH spokesman did not respond to an interview request.
Thompson said DOH workers indicated that there’s some kind of pay raise plan in the works, but it’s not ready yet. He, too, alluded to the political future of the matter.
“What it ultimately comes down to is, this is a fight to do the right thing, and sometimes it takes more than fighting things in the grievance system to win justice for state workers,” he said.
Stephen Smith, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and a vocal union supporter, squatted in the hallway outside the hearing for hours as talks continued.
He said Wednesday was a case of state government actively seeking to stop the changes it promised.
“We have a real crisis in our state, when it comes to the roads, and it starts with the fact that we don’t pay our workers enough,” he said. “Hundreds have left their jobs over 10 years, and we sit around and wonder why our roads don’t get fixed.”