Before she says goodbye, Kerttula calls state’s office standards “oppressive”

By January 23, 2014Government, State Government
An example of a new workstation under the state’s Universal Space Standards. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

An example of a new workstation under the state’s Universal Space Standards. (Photo by Heather Bryant/KTOO)

As one of her last official acts as Alaska State Representative, Beth Kerttula wrote a letter to the Department of Administration expressing concern over the state’s office work space policy, also known as Universal Space Standards. She calls aspects of the policy “oppressive.”

In a January 21st letter to Administration Commissioner Curtis Thayer, Juneau representative Beth Kerttula says the Universal Space Standards policy needs to be reevaluated.

Kerttula says putting state employees into 6-by-8-foot cubicles separated by low dividers takes away space and privacy, and enhances distracting noise:

“I just think it’s going to be oppressive and I think that’s anti-Alaskan, I think it’s anti-worker. How does anybody concentrate in a situation like that?”

Rep. Beth Kerttula's final day in office is Friday. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Rep. Beth Kerttula’s final day in office is Friday. (Photo by Skip Gray/KTOO)

Kerttula understands some of the perceived benefits of the office space standards, which were set into policy under former Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg. Kerttula likes the idea of breaking down barriers between employees and supervisors, “but you know that doesn’t seem to be the way that this is turning out,” she says. “It seems to be that there are some people who will have barriers while many will be stuck in what I just truly feel is not a healthy place for state employees.”

The state’s space standards impose guidelines on who gets an office. Senior management and administrative positions, like attorneys or physicians, do. Everyone else gets a cubicle.

Kerttula’s office has been hearing complaints about the space standards since last spring, although she says cubicles have been a problem for a while. Juneau’s delegation, she says, has long been advocating for a new state office building in the capital to improve workspace.

In her letter to Commissioner Thayer, Kerttula says many employees are afraid to speak out against the office standards for fear of retribution:

“When you start to see your work space, which is almost, you know, it’s an extension of yourself. When you start to see things happening with that, I think it causes a lot of fear, and this one did strike a chord with people. They were afraid to really speak up and come forward and say, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”

Thayer previously said the space standards will save the state about $125 million over the next 20 years, but Kerttula says that doesn’t take into account diminished productivity and employee morale. She fears the state could start losing employees. “If we’re going to have a job that we can excel at and do good work for the state, we’ve got to have a place that we can work in and feel valued,” Kerttula says.

So far, Universal Space Standards have been implemented on some floors in Juneau’s State Office Building and Anchorage’s Robert Atwood Building. Renovations to the Nome and Douglas state office buildings are set to begin this spring.

In his reply, Commissioner Thayer states that his department has worked closely with each agency that’s affected by space standards, and that it’s up to the agency’s management to make the final decision on floor plans. He also states that all employees of the affected agencies had the opportunity to offer input.

Andy Mills, a spokesman for the Administration Department, says, “When the space standards are being applied, there is a holistic look at what are the agency needs, what are individual staff needs. Some need the confidentiality of a closed door and in other cases, like Fish and Game, they have very different needs than, say, Commerce or Revenue, and so they’ll get a lab to do some of the work in, store wet gear.”

The Alaska State Employees Association filed a class action grievance over the state’s space standards policy last July. Arbitration is scheduled for May.

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