But the impact of health care costs is very real for the 20,000 teachers in West Virginia who have been on strike for over a week. Over the past decade, health care costs have eaten up more and more of teachers’ salaries, leaving them with no real increase in take-home pay to cover the rising cost of living.
Even the 4-5% raise the West Virginia state legislature is currently negotiating for teachers will do little to stem the tide of overwhelming premium costs.
“While having a $700 increase sounds lovely, that would only cover about a month and a half of my PEIA [state public employees] insurance,” said West Virginia high school teacher Daniel Summers to the Los Angeles Times. And Summers, who has a master’s degree, considers himself one of the “lucky ones.”
This trend of stagnating take-home pay due to health care cost increases is not limited to teachers; it’s a pattern throughout the economy. Over the past five years, employer-sponsored premiums for family coverage increased by 19 percent, far higher than the 12 percent increase in worker pay over that time period. Families in 2014 spent 67% more of their household expenditures on health care than they did thirty years earlier. Comparatively, families spent 16% less of their household expenditures on food than in 1984.
At the same time, employees are being asked to take on a larger share of the burden of health care costs than they used to. This is especially evident in the case of the West Virginia teachers, who are watching their premiums rise because the state has neglected PEIA funding over the past five years.
So far, American workers have been struggling but not breaking in the face of extremely high health care costs. But that may be changing. “At some point it’s not going to be worth it to have less food, less travel in order to spend money on health care,” said Louise Sheiner, a health economist at the Brookings Institution, quoted in NBC News.
For West Virginia teachers, that time has come.