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1,000 Teachers Violated Law with Sick-Outs, State Labor Secretary Finds

This article has been updated with a statement from 120 Strong, an organization that advocates on behalf of Kentucky teachers. 120 is a reference to the number of counties in Kentucky.

According to a state investigation, more than one thousand Kentucky teachers violated state law when their sick-out campaigns shuttered school districts as educators protested state retirement plan policy in Frankfort.

Some Northern Kentucky school districts were impacted by the sick-out strategy.

On Friday, Kentucky Labor Secretary David Dickerson announced that his Cabinet's Office of the Inspector General completed an investigation into whether the teachers engaged in an illegal work stoppage.

That investigation concluded that 1,074 Kentucky teachers did violate state law, which prohibits such stoppages.

In a news release, the Labor Cabinet cited KRS 336.050(2), which gives the Cabinet the discretion to prosecute and assess civil penalties of up to $1,000 per person, per day of work stoppage on any violation of a labor law in the state of Kentucky. Dickerson noted that while no penalties will be assessed for violations in this specific instance, this investigation was necessary to ensure that public schools remain open during the upcoming school year and that similar work stoppages do not occur in the future.

“Kentucky law clearly prohibits public-sector employees from engaging in work stoppages that many teachers engaged in during the early months of 2019,” Dickerson said in a news release. “Those teachers who participated in this concerted effort were in clear violation of the law, as noted by the Kentucky Education Association and recently affirmed by a federal court.”

Earlier, United States District Judge Danny Reeves acknowledged that the Labor Cabinet was permitted to investigate public school teachers for the sick-outs.

“Kentucky statutes explicitly grant the Labor Cabinet the authority to prosecute and assess civil penalties against public employees, which includes public-school teachers who may have violated KRS Chapter 336,” Reeves said. “Students are expected to attend classes. If they fail to do so without a valid excuse, their absence is duly-noted and appropriate action is taken. But the teachers at the center of this controversy expect[ed] different treatment.” 

“Citizens of the Commonwealth have a strong and continuing interest in public schools remaining open during the school year," Dickerson said. "The purpose of the Cabinet’s investigation was to undertake a thorough investigation into conduct by some public school teachers and ensure that work stoppages do not happen again so that public schools will be able to fulfill their mission to educate the children of Kentucky. The Cabinet remains dedicated to that mission and will continue to monitor any future ‘sick outs’ closely for further violations of Kentucky labor law.”

“Let it be clearly understood that the grace extended in this instance will not be extended for future such proven violations,” said Dickerson. “The public cannot tolerate another illegal work stoppage in our schools. It is important for public school teachers to understand the level of seriousness that, by law, the Labor Cabinet must and will give to any future work stoppages. We dedicate ourselves to students and parents across the Commonwealth to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, and that our schools will remain open.”

Attorney General Andy Beshear, the Democratic nominee for governor in this year's election against incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin, issued a statement: 

"The only person who broke the law was Matt Bevin when he tried to lock teachers out of their Capitol. So let's be clear: Future attempts to threaten teachers will not be tolerated & we'll win again just like how we stopped him from fining teachers today.

"And the best way to stop this craziness once and for all is to beat Matt Bevin in November. Instead of these threats and bullying, I'll be a governor who values public education and respects our teachers." 
 
The Kentucky Education Association issued a statement: 

"During the last legislative session, educators across the state took action to defend public schools and Kentucky public school students. During his term as governor, Bevin has taken every opportunity to vilify and persecute educators for their advocacy and activism. He called educators thugs and accused them of being responsible for shootings, drug use and sexual assault of children. Kentuckians know better than to listen to his unfounded attacks.  The announcement made today by the Bevin administration is yet another scare tactic to try to intimidate educators and public education supporters from having their voices heard in Frankfort.

"Public school is back in session now, and every educator is giving their best to provide a quality education to our kids. It’s unfortunate that Governor Bevin, through his appointee at the Labor Cabinet, decided to issue this veiled threat against educators who dared to exercise their democratic right to be heard by their government.  We encourage Bevin’s Labor Cabinet to focus its energy on supporting Kentucky’s working men and women -- like our hard working coal miners still waiting for a paycheck -- rather than conducting political witch hunts against educators."

120 Strong, an advocacy group for Kentucky teachers, released the following statement on Friday:

"School is just barely back in session and already Kentucky teachers have received their first threat from one of Bevin’s heavies at the Labor Cabinet. In a move that surprised exactly no one, the Labor Cabinet rules that teacher sickouts in 2019 were illegal work stoppages and 1,074 teachers were guilty of this. While they could be assessed a fine of $1000/day, they won’t at this time. They ended their release with a threat against anyone attempting to sick out again in the future, stating there would be penalties assessed in that event. Maybe if the labor cabinet secretary wasn’t so busy being a Bevin lapdog, he could have done his actual job and ensured the bonds were secured to pay the BlackJewel miners when the company shuttered. 

"Our Kentucky teachers continue to show up for our kids and help them achieve their goals. We should expect our legislators, the governor and his handpicked cabinet to respect our education system and its lifeblood--teachers. However, as we face critical teacher shortages, this administration is bent on continuing the attacks. Game. On."

This story may be updated further.

-Staff report