Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, chair of the House Committee on Jails and Prisons, during a meeting last year. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill suggesting that schools ask their students about access to food. An almost identical bill moving this year would require schools to do so. Also, cash-strapped EMS agencies visited the statehouse on Thursday to ask for more funding. But first, a substantial proposed raise for people working in West Virginia jails and prisons.

Significant raise for jail guards moves in House 

In an attempt to ameliorate the dire staffing situation in West Virginia’s jails, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would significantly boost the pay of jail and prison guards. 

The bill was advanced unanimously by the House Committee on Jails and Prisons and would provide a $10,000 salary increase over two years and bonuses of up to $6,000.

William Marshall, the commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the committee that the pay raise was necessary to attract more applicants and retain current correctional officers.

Marshall said the division currently has more vacancies than it has at any point in the past 30 years. According to data from the division, there were 1,027 vacancies as of December. In some facilities, vacancies are as high as 70%.

“A few weekends back, we had two officers show up for a shift that would need 15 or 16,” Marshall said, adding that officers on the previous shift were asked to keep working. “If we don’t have enough volunteers, they end up being ‘voluntold,’ and that makes for a cranky and disgruntled employee.”

Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency in the state’s jails last year because of the shortage of officers. More than 300 National Guard members are currently deployed at the state’s jails — though they do not work in positions that interact directly with people incarcerated.

The state’s jails have some of the highest death rates in the country. The division is facing a barrage of litigation, including a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of nearly 1,000 current and former inmates at Southern Regional Jail.

If passed, the bill would go into effect on July 1. All correctional officers would immediately receive a $5,000 raise, with the remaining $5,000 phased in over two years. Marshall said that new correctional officers currently make $33,000 per year.

The bill would also pay any officer with at least three years of experience a $6,000 bonus starting on July 1. New hires would receive a $3,000 bonus and another $3,000 if they work for at least three years.

Del. Eric Brooks, R- Raleigh, said the state’s correctional officers work in an “unspeakably dangerous environment.” Brooks worked previously as a federal correctional officer.

“It’s a job that most probably wouldn’t do at any salary,” he added.

The committee’s chairman, Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, stressed the urgency of the legislation making it to passage.

“Let’s campaign for this like lives depend on this because they do,” he said.

The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee. —Dan Lawton

Bill would mandate (not just suggest) school hunger surveys

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, chair of the Senate Education Committee, during a recent meeting. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

In March 2020, when the U.S. implemented COVID-19 prevention efforts, lockdown measures revealed the tentative nature of getting basic necessities. Access to resources like housing and internet — goods that many in the country already had difficulty accessing — were pushed further out of reach at the time when they were needed most.

Jenny Anderson, the Families Leading Change WV director, saw many West Virginia children go without another essential: food. From her years as a parent and public school activist, she knew that many in the state, especially in rural areas, lacked reliable access to nutritious meals. And she saw that need grow during the pandemic. 

“We knew the need was there,” Anderson said.

Anderson and other advocates started the Facebook page WV Food ER for people to let others know if they didn’t have access to food. She said people across the state were forthright in identifying their issues, and it helped service providers attend to the greatest needs.

She thinks a state-run survey that assessed where the greatest food needs are in West Virginia — a more formalized version of the Facebook page — would continue to help the state and nonprofits direct their resources. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that outlined the ways county school districts could survey their students. But it lacks any mandates that these surveys be conducted.

This year, lawmakers are pushing an almost identical bill with one key change: the school systems are required to conduct an annual survey of their students’ access to food outside of school, and the county board is required to distribute information about food resources to all students. Members of the Senate Education Committee unanimously advanced the bill to the floor today.

“[It’s] to see do we have a need for making certain that kids in this area are taken care of,” said Senator and Education Committee Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason. “What can you say against it when you’re trying to assess to make sure kids are fed?” —Allen Siegler

Go deeper: The delicate, difficult fight to get healthy food in rural West Virginia

‘A failing system’: EMS personnel visit Capitol, advocate for funding

Paramedic and captain Thomas Hayes of the White Sulphur Springs EMS, center, poses with other members of the agency. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Unlike every neighboring state, West Virginia provides no state-level funding for emergency medical services, so cash-strapped local agencies often struggle to retain workers and pay them fairly. On Thursday, nearly a dozen EMS agencies came to the West Virginia Capitol to advocate for more funding. 

“Thirty-one years at White Sulphur [Springs] EMS, and at the end of March, I’m leaving. Because I’m tired of dealing with no funding source,” said paramedic and captain Thomas Hayes. “I love EMS. It’s my heart. However, I would never recommend anyone to do this because it’s a failing system.”

Hayes is not alone. In just two years, West Virginia lost more than 35% of its emergency medical technicians and 15% of its paramedics, according to the WV EMS Coalition. 

Photo of the poster brought by the White Sulphur Springs EMS to the statehouse on Thursday. Photo by Ellie Heffernan

To remedy some of these problems, The coalition has asked Gov. Jim Justice for a one-time appropriation of $30 million to fund equipment and training. But the organization is also advocating for several bills this session. 

One of them —  HB 2069  — would create a discount for certified emergency response vehicles going through tolls; that one has cleared one House committee. The other would require county commissions to impose a fee on tourism and recreational activities to fund EMS and fire departments. However, this would raise more revenue in some heavily-touristed counties than others. Even so, WV EMS Coalition Vice President Paul Seamann says it would be a big win. 

“We know that’s not equitable across all 55 counties, but a lot of those counties that would receive that funding, it would be a big boon,” he said. “So . . . if we can help any of the brethren in different counties, then we’ll help all of us because we need those services everywhere.” —Ellie Heffernan

Dan Lawton is the economic justice reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He previously worked as a reporter in Northern California and New Orleans, covering criminal justice, government and high-profile...

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.