UPDATE: 15 laid off W.Va. foresters going back to work

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UPDATE 3/17/17 @ 12:25 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Foresters are going back to work and the W.Va. Secretary of Commerce announced Friday the recall of 15 state foresters who were laid off last year.

According to a release, the recall of the foresters will take effect immediately.

“We are excited to put our foresters back to work,” said Secretary H. Wood Thrasher. “This is just one more example of Governor Justice’s initiatives to restore sound management of our state forests in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Since the layoffs took place, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had been picking up the slack.

A combination of a funds transfer from the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training as well as existing vacancies within the Division of Forestry will fund the positions through the end of fiscal year 2017.

Governor Jim Justice will ask the Legislature to carry over this transfer in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget bill.

“Just like our current budget crisis across state government, we shouldn’t kick the can down the road any further as we attempt to make our timber industry the most environmentally sound in the country,” said Governor Justice.



UPDATE 10/3/16 @ 7 p.m.
KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- West Virginia fire departments are going to be strained for resources this fire season.

Thirty-seven foresters were laid off this summer, meaning less personnel fighting brush and forest fires during burn season.

"Being a volunteer fire department, obviously, especially in the day time hours, we're limited on manpower, limited on resources," Malden Fire Chief Squeak Peterson told WSAZ.

Volunteer fire departments are now trying to compensate for cuts.

"We're going to still protect the structures, we're going to protect the property of our residents in the area but for us to commit people up on the hillside, it's very difficult to do," Peterson said.

Fire departments typically respond to brush fires, but foresters are often called in because fire departments aren't equipped with the right tools and resources to tackle the brush fires.

"A lot of times these fires have to be contained by the DNR with the use of bulldozers rather than just rakes and blowers and they have to bring other equipment in," Peterson said.

Fire departments are also lacking the time and manpower required to fight brush fires.

"We pay workers compensation based on our rates that we're out there, so if we're out there an additional two, three, four hours then we're obviously going to have more costs," Peterson said.

The Division of Forestry is still in the process of figuring out how they're going to compensate from the cuts.

The state plans to rely on the National Guard and the Division of Corrections for backup services and may use neighboring states.



UPDATE 6/28/16 @ 10:50 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- More than 30 people are without a job after the state Personnel Board approved layoffs on Tuesday within the Division of Forestry.

It wasn't an easy meeting on Tuesday. The room was packed with workers as nearly a third of the Division of Forestry learned that they will be unemployed come July 15.

West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette addressed the board, saying the layoffs stem from a budget situation that didn't happen over night.

Burdette says there has been financial pressure on the forestry division during the last several years, including budget cuts and depletion of funds. He also said multiple times that he didn't want to suggest the layoffs and that he warned the House Finance Committee that the cuts were on the horizon.

Some of the people who spoke at the meeting Tuesday said there won't be enough people left to fully serve the state.

"The positions that were picked for the layoff raised a lot of concerns. Supervisors and office staff were not touched, there are only going to be 15 field foresters left in the entire state. It's not going to work," said Tim Casto, a state fire forester.

The new state budget cut $1.3 million from the Division of Forestry.

Burdette said all the employees being laid off were hardworking and that they would be considering for re-hire if the opportunity became available.

The layoffs will take effect July 15.



UPDATE 6/16/16 @ 7:15 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ)- Jobs within the West Virginia Division of Forestry are safe for now.

The division requested the approval to lay off 37 employees. In order to approve the cuts, the state Personnel Board must give their approval.

On Thursday, the board decided not to make a decision on those layoffs just yet.

Matthew Cook has worked for the Division of Forestry for 16 years and he's one of 37 that could lose his job.

"It's been a kick in the gut," Cook said.

Cook spoke at Thursday's board meeting and sent a message to the division's director, Randy Dye.

"Randy doesn't want to come up with a solution other than let's just lay them off. It's wrong!" Cook said. He also said the division's director isn't fighting for his employees.

Field workers are the bulk of employees that could lose their jobs. The field workers provide vital services like fighting forest fires.

"The 37 people that came in here today, they're the people who are putting these fires out. Are you gonna do it? Randy are you going to do it? Is the office staff going to do it? Who's gonna do it?" Cook asked while he addressed the meeting.

The Division of Forestry said they need to make the cuts and if they don't cut field workers, they could lose federal funding.

But the board decided the division had not done enough research and tabled the issue for their next meeting.

The West Virginia Department of Commerce is asking the board to reconsider their decision. The department of commerce says layoffs are the only way to aid the division's shortfall.

The department says for every month that an action isn't taken, three more employees will ultimately have to be laid off.

Although Cook was relieved to still be employed after the meeting, he says the battle to keep his job has just begun.

"Employees of this state are not going to put up with legislatures proposing horrible budgets and proposing cutting jobs of people that were born here and were raised here, went to school here and want to raise a family here. We are absolutely opposed to the fact that we have to leave because they can't balance a budget for us," Cook said.

The next board meeting will be on July 21st.

UPDATE 6/16/16 @ 3 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ/WV MetroNews) -- The West Virginia State Personnel Board has voted to preserve three dozen jobs in the Division of Forestry.

During a meeting Thursday, the board tabled a motion that would have laid off the employees by the end of the month.

All 37 of the workers were at the meeting.

Several of those employees spoke out against the move.

Randy Dye, director of the state Division of Forestry, told the Personnel Board the only option to keep the agency up and running was to make staff cuts.

“We won’t be able to do what we once did,” he said.

But several board members told Dye and agency officials to go back to the drawing board to make sure all options are explored. Dye was criticized by some speakers for allegedly not fighting for the Forestry employees.

The layoffs were announced Wednesday, due to a $1.7 million funding cut in the new state budget.

The agency has currently has 120 workers — the proposal would cut one-third of its work force.



ORIGINAL STORY 6/15/16
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The West Virginia Division of Forestry has requested approval to lay off 37 employees.

According to a news release, the layoffs come after legislators rejected legislation that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed to fully fund Forestry. The agency now faces a budget shortfall of $1.7M for the upcoming fiscal year.

The agency now says it has to cut its workforce by one-third. A spokesperson tells WSAZ these cuts were made to employees who work in the agency's fire protection, logging and timber management. All three programs will be adversely affected by the funding reduction, according to the spokesperson.

“This is the first time during my tenure as cabinet secretary that I’ve ever had to lay off employees, and it is by far the most difficult task I have faced,” said Department of Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. “The 37 employees affected by this reduction are more than just numbers. They are real, hard-working West Virginians. The Division will certainly miss these individuals, but more importantly West Virginia will miss the service they have provided. The loss of this manpower will significantly impact our ability to encourage best practices within the industry, police logging operations, respond to citizen complaints and provide vital fire prevention and suppression services.”

According to the news release, a large portion of the agency's budget was funded by a timber industry severance tax. However, that portion of the tax was eliminated in 2010 to ease financial strain on the industry.

That money was made up through funding received from the state’s general revenue budget.

The staffing reductions will start with eliminating vacant positions and then by laying off employees who have the least seniority, according to the release.

“I understand there will be difficult days ahead, and I am committed to making sure the men and women of Forestry have access to all of the available support services the state of West Virginia provides,” Secretary Burdette said.

Personnel involved have been notified, and the agency says it help affected employees during this difficult transition, according to the release. Teams from WorkForce West Virginia and the Division of Personnel will be meeting with affected employees this week.

The state Personnel Board is expected to make its decision within the next few days. The layoffs would take effect July 1.



 
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