State union expresses alarm over workers reporting to offices on Monday

State and local government workers receive similar compensation to priv-ate-sector workers, according to an Institute of Social and Economic Research report. State Office Building. Aug. 5, 2016.(Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)
Some state government workers are calling for a statewide policy allowing more state employees to work from home due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus.  (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO)

State workers in Anchorage were told to report to work on Monday under the same circumstances they were working under on Friday, despite Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s order to hunker down. 

State Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum wrote in an email over the weekend that state agencies must continue to provide services to the public, and that agencies have been promoting telework where appropriate. 

Adam Crum, Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services, answers a question during a press conference on December 11, 2019, at the Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

But the largest union for state workers is expressing alarm over the lack of a statewide policy allowing more state employees to work from home. 

In a conference call with reporters, Alaska State Employees Association members said the need for a statewide policy is urgent.

Union steward Amber Barney said 1,000 workers share eight elevators at the Atwood Building in Anchorage. 

“If one person gets sick and touches an elevator button and they’re not being wiped down and there’s no safety precautions in place for those in the Atwood Building, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” Barney said. “And those that are on the front lines, those that are in state services that are essential to keeping government running are not going to be there to do so, because we are going to be sick.” 

Union executive director Jake Metcalfe said the state should follow the example of Hawaii and offer paid leave to nonessential workers who don’t have computers to work from home. He says he’s concerned about the safety of those who have to report to state offices on Monday.

“It is beyond my comprehension why you are just saying that your employees have to come into danger,” he said. “You know, we’ll go to work because we have to work.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Friday that the administration is working on getting protective equipment and training for state workers. 

Some legislators also have expressed concern about state workers’ safety, saying they would like to see more work from home. Dunleavy addressed that issue on Thursday, saying it’s an issue between supervisors and workers. 

“It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, because there are going to be some workers, some jobs where you can’t work from home,” he said. “For example, if you’re plowing and you’re driving a truck for [Department of Transportation] and you’re in the truck plowing, you’re not going to working from home to plow, because that’s virtually impossible to do.”

Dunleavy said several factors determine whether someone should stay at home, such as whether they’re ill, been exposed to someone with coronavirus, or have underlying conditions. 

Union leaders said they’ve contacted the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development about their workplace safety concerns. 

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka answers questions during a press conference December 11, 2019, at the Capitol in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Crum and Commissioner of Administration Kelly Tshibaka released a statement in response to the union’s concerns. They said the state can provide government services while also protecting state workers.

They say the state is initiating telework for workers on a larger scale, but for those who can’t, the state uses strategies like staggered work schedules to maximize social distancing.

The commissioners also note they’re allowing 14 days of paid leave for workers who can’t telecommute but need to quarantine because of travel and COVID-19 exposure or symptoms.

Andrew Kitchenman

State Government Reporter, Alaska Public Media & KTOO

State government plays an outsized role in the life of Alaskans. As the state continues to go through the painful process of deciding what its priorities are, I bring Alaskans to the scene of a government in transition.

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