Beckley Register-Herald, August 16, 2012

By Mannix Porterfield

Register-Herald Reporter

Ten-year tandem truck driver Gene Pickens earns $10.80 an hour with the Division of Highways.

That’s a mere $2.49 more an hour than he was paid fully a decade ago, and a union leader says this is unfair.

In fact, field organizer John Thompson of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE Local 170) told a legislative committee as much Wednesday.

Thompson laid out his findings based on a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Transportation.

Thompson characterized it as “a broken wage structure” that unfairly pays DOH workers while the West Virginia Turnpike rewards its employees with a graduated income based on years of service.

“Nobody ever moves up the pay grades in their classifications,” the union leader said of the DOH pay scale.

In the last four to 10 years, he told the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, the DOH has suffered “a tremendous turnover” and that is attributed largely to the stagnation in the pay scale.

When longtime workers collect a mere $10.80 an hour, “there is no incentive for them to stick around and work a career in the DOH,” Thompson said.

“So you have a huge turnover reflected in seniority levels of the DOH,” he said.

Thompson’s union represents some 1,200 workers in state government.

The revolving door at the DOH hasn’t improved much, either, despite a 96-cent bump in the hourly wage four years ago, Thompson told the legislators.

Few of the DOH employees earn more than a minimum for their specific jobs, he said.

“That in itself demonstrates the problem within the DOH,” Thompson said.

“The vast majority of DOH employees are stuck at the bottom of their pay grade and they do not move up. Some have worked 30 years without moving from the bottom.”

A new worker hired off the street at $10.80 an hour can expect the same pay rate 10 years from now, he said.

“It creates a morale problem within the division,” Thompson said.

The union official said he hopes to have talks with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox about developing a fair wage structure with accelerated pay hikes, so that a raise comes automatically after every five years of service, until one puts in 20 years and reaches the top of the grade.

“It’s a more fair and transparent system, rather than this current system, which is broken,” Thompson said.

Pickens said afterward that he cannot live well on his pay, and that his wife works to help make ends meet.

“I’d say at least $15 an hour would be fair for me,” he said.

Had he worked these years for the Turnpike, the union leader said the employee would have been given “substantial pay raises.”

Why the DOT makes such a distinction between Turnpike and DOH workers wasn’t clear.

“You’d have to ask Secretary Mattox,” Johnson added.