The Dominion Post, Morgantown, WV – August 16, 2012

CHARLESTON — The Division of Highways (DOH) can’t retain road workers, UE Local 170 union representative John Thompson told legislative leaders Wednesday, because they’re vastly underpaid based on an unfair wage structure.
“It’s a broken wage structure. No one moves up,” Thompson told the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, whose members include the Senate president, House speaker, both finance chairs and other ranking members.
“Wages have stagnated,” he said. “There’s no incentive for them to stick around. It’s time to develop a fair wage structure.”
According to information Thompson garnered from the DOH, the state employs 2,454 transportation workers in four grades based on job skills — TW1-TW4. Employee wages are based on those grades, with a pay range for each grade.
But, unlike teachers, there is no step-pay grid with increases based on experience. That means a green new hire can make the same as an old hand.
Gene Pickens, 50, of Jackson County, told The Dominion Post he’s been with the DOH for 10 years and still makes $10.80 an hour. He runs heavy equipment and has one kid in college and another in first grade.
“I don’t know how the state thinks anyone can make it,” he said. At his age, he has few options for change.
Kim Simons, also of Jackson County, is a TW2 like Pickens and operates heavy equipment. She’s been with the DOH “32 years, 9 months, 2 days” and still makes $2.30 an hour below top wage for her grade. She told The Dominion Post someone with similar experience working in the shale gas industry could make three times as much.
The majority of DOH workers — 1,721 — are TW2, Thompson said, with 1,417 of those working as equipment operators. District 4, which includes Monongalia, Marion and Preston counties, employs 272 transportation workers.
The average wage for all transportation workers is $11 an hour for one to three years of experience, Thompson said, referring to a PowerPoint presentation he provided. It’s about $11.50 for 10 years and $16 for 24.
“The vast majority of DOH employees are stuck at the bottom of their pay grade,” Thompson said. About 1,100 TW2s make $10 an hour; fewer than 200 make $11; 25 or so make $16.
The high turnover can be seen, he said, in employment seniority figures: 0-4 years, 1,290 workers; 20-24 years, 155; 25-plus, 126.
Thompson said he would like to see a step scale that accounts for years of service, and plans to talk to the governor and Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox about the issue.
Gwynne Dillard, 49, of Kanawha County, makes $15 an hour after 30 years of service. Six years away from retirement, he doesn’t know if he’ll stay past that. “It depends on whether things get better or not whether I’d stay past 55. There’s no incentive. The private sector’s paying $34 an hour, and I’m stuck here making $15.”
Frankie Armentrout, 63, also of Kanawha County, can retire anytime, but is sticking around to see how this plays out. “I’d like to stick it out and see if we could get more money for our brothers and sisters out here working. We have good quality people. … It’s time to bring these workers up to a good standard where they could provide for their families and make a good living.”
The information was new to committee members and they said they’d need time to process it.
Asked about Thompson’s step scale idea, House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, said, “I really think this needs to come from the governor’s office.” It would be hard for the two finance chairs to insert a pay raise for one group of workers apart from all other state workers.
This month, Gov. Earl Ray ordered 7.5 percent budget cuts for most state agencies, based on increased Medicaid expenses and reduced severance and lottery revenues.
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, DMarion, has figures on the white board in his office looking at shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2014 — $180 million for Medicaid due to decreased federal matching dollars, $100 million for retirement, and another $100 million for some other items. “We’re looking for about $380 million,” he said.
Tax hikes aren’t in the picture, Prezioso said, so that means cut services or find efficiencies in state departments.
The 7.5 percent budget cuts reflect an effort at the latter. Tomblin said when he announced the cuts, “For 2014, we must simply do more with less in certain of our agencies. We will be up to that challenge.”