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Teachers strike (copy)

West Virginia teachers strike in front of the state Capitol building.

On July 31, the PEIA Task Force Public Outreach Subcommittee met to compile data gathered from 21 public meetings and surveys. During this meeting, Sen. Mitch Carmichael voiced his concern with sharing the information from these meetings, saying, “We’re making decisions and proposing plans based on a very small sample size.”

I attended the listening meeting held at Spring Mills High School on June 11. When I arrived, the line to sign up to speak — to tell the stories of how PEIA is ruining the lives of many public employees — was wrapped around the back of the cafeteria. There were so many people clamoring to sign in and to sign up to speak that many folks walked past the sign in sheet and straight in to the auditorium.

When I entered, there appeared to be around 250 people already seated, and there were more outside. For the next four hours, we heard story after heart-wrenching story about PEIA’s ridiculous requirements and exorbitant costs.

More than once the entire crowd was moved to tears by parents who bravely shared stories of the ways PEIA has left their families scrambling for adequate health care for their children. I was awed by the courage and the power of those voices who for four hours laid themselves bare in an effort to make the Task Force understand how inadequate and unsustainable the current PEIA coverage is for all public employees.

During this meeting, I also listened with anger and disbelief when Sen. Carmichael interjected to express to the crowd that the Task Force was here to listen, but he was feeling attacked.

Attacked? By tearful mothers? By 60-year-old diabetics who need their insulin? By cancer patients? It became clear then that after hours of heartbreaking stories, the senator still had not really heard the people who spoke.

What Sen. Carmichael didn’t and still doesn’t seem to understand (besides empathy) is that the folks who shared their stories or who simply came to listen at these meetings are West Virginians who represent the hundreds of thousands of West Virginians across this state who are struggling and who are asking and expecting their elected officials to do their jobs and fix a problem that is destroying families and driving off good teachers.

It is unfathomable how after multiple meetings across the state just like the one I attended at Spring Mills High that Sen. Carmichael would have the gall to claim “not enough data.” And was 20,000 of us walking off the job for nine days just not a big enough sample size either?

When teachers and service personnel went back to work in March, the West Virginia Legislature promised to fix PEIA. What Sen. Carmichael is really saying when he says not enough folks attended the Task Force meetings or proposed enough plans for fixing PEIA is that our voices, our stories, and our pain are not enough for him to act; and once again, teachers and public employees will have to do more than their fair share — to do our jobs in the classroom and apparently his in the Senate, too.

So I’ll be shaking out my “United 55” T-shirt and driving the five hours from Martinsburg to Charleston on Aug. 7 to support the plans and suggestions that public employees have put forth over the last five months.

But I shouldn’t have to. Teachers shouldn’t have to take time away from preparing for the new school year, time away from lesson planning and new students to prove to our lawmakers that the people really do need and want their health care fixed.

Teachers shouldn’t have to meet on their own time to write their own PEIA reports or write bills for funding it. We elected lawmakers to represent us who would be our voice, who we thought would fight for the best interests of their people. We sent them to Charleston as a representative, a “sample size” if you will, of our districts.

Perhaps the real problem that needs to be addressed is that our legislators are no longer an accurate sample size of the people they represent. Public employees will remember in November, and if the Task Force doesn’t take action, we have already proven that we most certainly will.

Jessica Salfia is a writer and an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, one of the editors of “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike” from Belt Publishing, president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English and a member of the Berkeley County AFT.