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West Virginia Senate Workforce Committee passes bill to make state construction project payroll records confidential, exempt from FOIA requests

Committee hears update on vocational education

By Erika Diehl, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Senate Workforce Committee met Wednesday morning to discuss a bill regarding the confidentiality of wage records and hear a presentation about how the Department of Education is preparing high school students for the workforce.

SB 370 would exempt certain wage records from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and prevent the sharing of construction contract wage records by the government to any entity outside state or federal government agencies. Wage records contain an account of actual wages paid to employees as well as private information of those employees.

Current law allows citizens to examine these payrolls, which include information such as address. In explaining the need for the bill, it was noted that   lead sponsor Sen. Chandler Swope, R – Mercer, has received general concern that special interest groups potentially have access to this information.

Questions of accountability arose of how the state, media and members of the public can check if and where these companies are paying taxes. It was also noted that the Division of Labor receives zero dollars in funding to enforce the WV Jobs Act, which requires that a contractor first look for local workers before they hire.

Currently, FOIA laws allow this information on individuals to be obtained and checked, which opponents of the bill said protects both taxes and the opportunity of jobs for West Virginians.

“These individuals are receiving taxpayer dollars to do this work. So, shouldn’t we have a right to know who we’re paying? Everybody that works for government is getting paid and we can see where that lies. Why would this be any different?” Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, asked.

“All of the personal information is available to a state or federal agency to determine if they are paying taxes,” said the committee chair, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh.  “This is dealing with an employee privacy issue.”

Sen. Glen Jeffries, D-Putnam, pointed out a state agency would therefore need a cause of action to ask for those records. “That’s the problem. That’s why I believe the reason for this information to be available is that if someone knows that there’s something going on, they have that ability to look for that information and then cause that action to happen.”

Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, appeared to speak about how the bill would impact reporting and the media.

“Our concern is it would greatly reduce our sources of information,” Smith said. 

Using the example of the WV Jobs Acts as it relates to the $3 billion Roads to Prosperity Bonds, Smith described how support for this project came from the promise that it would provide jobs for West Virginians.

“That payroll information was public when those bond issues were on the ballot and people voted for it, and that made monitoring by the media and the public possible. This would remove the details and leave only reports on general data. General data reporting is good, we use it,” Smith continued, “but that counts on the data being accurate. If a company is a bad actor, the data provided might be wrong and if the payroll information is confidential, it’s impossible for the media or the public to check on any of that information. Items such as: are the workers really from the West Virginia region and are they really living at the address listed.

Smith said it’s the unemployed local West Virginia heavy employment operator who can look at a payroll statement and question the legitimacy of the employees and addresses listed, if something doesn’t seem right.

That member of the public would then alert the media and likely send a complaint to the state, Smith said.

When questioned about any problems with the current law, Smith said he is unaware of any complaints made from workers regarding privacy investigations.

Sen. Caputo said, “We’re just protecting bad actors, that’s all we’re doing … We’re giving them a way to hide payroll, taxpayer money from the public. … In 2017, when Seminole Equipment was found to be cheating West Virginia out of tax money, it was found by citizens that had access to this that care about local jobs for local workers.”

 “It does nothing to advance the interest of West Virginia workers,” Caputo said.

Once discussion ended, the committee voted to pass the bill. It will be reported to the full Senate.

The education discussion centered on how the state is preparing high school students for the workforce.

Clinton Burch, technical education officer at the West Virginia Department of Education, spoke first. He began with the importance of vocational education in West Virginia.

“Success is over the top.” Burch said, “but, what about the kids that get lost after graduation?”

He explained that the leadership team is meeting with other entities around the state on a weekly basis to come up with ideas to streamline the programs’ offerings. Career Technical (CT) education is expanding into middle schools and the 18-24 year age-range. Their goal is to work with school counselors, DHHR and Workforce on each individual case.

In order to participate in CT, they have to participate in drug testing, as well. More than 94% of students pass the test, and the school system is responsible to find help for those who fail, Burch said.

Charles Pack, principal of the Academy of Careers and Technology and Director of Career Technical Education for Raleigh County schools, also spoke.

“Ninety six percent of students who participate in Career Technical education graduated on time, in the 12 years that was allowed for them.” Pack explained. “That’s a 9% increase over students who did not participate.” This statistic is 6% higher relative to the state percentage.

Pack said some of the challenges are the need for tuition assistance for students in shorter programs and teacher retention.

There are 152 locations around the state, with 121 Career Technical programs housed in a high school and 22 in stand-alone centers. There are seven multi-county centers and two are specialized, for the blind and deaf.

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