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Alaska members demand an end to state worker staffing crisis

Photo: ASEA/AFSCME Local 52
Alaska members demand an end to state worker staffing crisis
By Samantha Harris, ASEA/AFSCME Local 52, and AFSCME Staff ·
Alaska members demand an end to state worker staffing crisis
Photo: ASEA/AFSCME Local 52

JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska’s public services are suffering because of a severe shortage of workers — and members of Alaska State Employees Association (ASEA)/AFSCME Local 52 are shining a light on this problem.

On Friday, ASEA Local 52 members held a rally in front of the Alaska Capitol to urge state lawmakers to staff the front lines quickly.

They were joined by workers, legislators and other allies to support recruitment and retention efforts for critical public sector jobs throughout Alaska. The problem is particularly acute at the state Division of Public Assistance (DPA), which has been dealing with a backlog of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits since last September.

Nationwide, more than 500,000 public sector jobs remain vacant, according to AFSCME’s analysis of federal data — though the federal government has approved $350 billion in state and local aid under the AFSCME-backed American Rescue Plan. These jobs are funded and accounted for in state budgets.

In Alaska, there is a dire need to hire more public assistance eligibility technicians, children’s services caseworkers, nurses and nurse aides in assisted living facilities called Pioneer Homes, and nurses and caregivers at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, to name a small handful. The vacancy rate is a staggering 22% in just the state’s Department of Health, affecting critical services Alaskans rely on every day.  

The real reasons for vacant positions in Alaska and elsewhere is that these jobs offer wages that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living and provide substandard benefits. And lawmakers show public service workers a general lack of respect. Job seekers seek dignity at work, fair pay, affordable health care, a secure retirement and the protection that comes with a union contract.

“Not that long ago, the state of Alaska was a premier place to work. Living wages, pension retirement, health care and a respect for public employees drew Alaskans to public service, where they often remained for the rest of their careers. Budget cuts, substandard benefits and poor working conditions have taken their toll,” ASEA Executive Director Heidi Drygas said at the rally.

She also sounded an optimistic note, saying, “Yet we’re encouraged by discussions with legislators and members of the administration that we can finally turn things around and staff our state once again.”

ASEA Ketchikan Chapter President and DPA employee Joey Tillson said: “People are trying desperately to help our neighbors, but we need help. I have seen so many people leave DPA —but I am still here. I stay because if I quit, that is one less person that is here helping feed Alaskans. Staffing DPA helps put food on the table, helps feed Alaskans, and that’s what we need right now — to staff our state!”

State Sen. Forrest Dunbar, who represents working-class neighborhoods in Anchorage, said the state ought to treat its workers and the public better.

“It’s past time to pay Alaska public employees a fair wage and to give them a dignified retirement for their state service and get the public the services they need,” Dunbar said.

State Rep. Genevieve Mina, a member of the Health and Social Services Committee who represents some of the poorest neighborhoods in Anchorage, talked about the importance of public assistance, calling it “government at its best.”

“For the people that are working at DPA — thank you for staying,” Mina said. “You are on the front lines of these services, providing benefits, and the work you do is so important. We need to make sure you have what you need to stay, to continue processing benefits, and to help Alaskans.”

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