Supporters of a bill pending in the House and the Senate to add sexual orientation to the state’s nondiscrimination law gathered at the steps of the Senate. Most wore stickers proclaiming they “stand with Sam.” The “Sam” they’re referring to is Sam Hall, a gay coal miner who filed a lawsuit against Massey Energy in December.
Hall says during his time working for Massey, co-workers found out he was gay and subjected him to repeated verbal abuse and physical threats. He says he reported the harassment, but nothing was done by upper management.
“As gay West Virginians we have no support in the labor laws against discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Hall said.
“If the labor laws would have been amended earlier to contain sexual orientation discrimination, myself, as well as other gay West Virginians, would not have to endure demeaning and inexcusable behavior from employers and employees at the workplace.”
Lance Schultz of the West Virginia Conservative Foundation attended the news conference, and says his group opposes the bill. He says giving gays and lesbians protection against harassment equates to condoning and promoting homosexuality.
“This is reprehensible behavior. It is devastating to the family, and it is completely contrary to the West Virginia values that make this state the great state that it is,” Schultz said.
Meanwhile, in the Capitol Rotunda, state employees held a rally demanding pay raises. There’s been a freeze on merit raises since 2005. Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed legislation giving employees a one-time salary boost, but state workers are hoping for more.
Butch Tritt is an inspector for the Division of Highways in Wood County. He says the state’s wage freeze is unfair, and is creating divisions among employees.
“Right now, on average, most state employees have been here nine years; they’re still earning entry level pay,” he said. “New hires are coming off the street making what a nine-year veteran makes, and it’s really causing some problems. It’s gotten so bad that now we’re hiring people using special hiring rates above maybe what a nine-year veteran is making, and it’s just decimating the workforce.”
Those at the rally wore red bandannas. Ernie Chafin, the president of the West Virginia Public Workers’ Union Local 170 says one reason for the bandannas is to mark the seminal labor struggles of the United Mine Workers of America at Blair Mountain. But there was another reason, too.
“These bandannas are also being worn in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin,” she said. “Who, if they lose their collective bargaining rights, they can look to West Virginia for what’s going to happen to them, and not just the state employees but the general public in Wisconsin as well. I would like to see a delegation sent from Wisconsin to West Virginia to be used as a case study just to see what can happen.”
The bills giving teachers and other public employees a one-time bonus are stuck in House and Senate Finance Committees. House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White says he hasn’t yet ruled out making the increases permanent.