State job vacancies lead to unplowed roads and other service gaps

Anchorage, December 2021. Unfilled state jobs have led to delays in clearing snow from roads this winter. (Jeff Chen / Alaska Public Media)

Critical government positions will not be filled this year. This has led to snow-cleared roads, ferries stranded at the wharf and slowdowns in the justice system. We spoke to Anchorage Daily News reporter James Brooks, who reported on the matter.

Listen now:


The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Kavitha George: Could you describe where we see vacancies in the state?

James Brooks: They occur in different places across the state. I want to say that it is not uniform across all departments. But where I’ve seen it the most is in the Department of Transport, with plow operators, ferry workers and people with technical skills, people like mechanics or sailors who need to have training. specific. So generally, if it is a technical skill, it is rare and difficult to hire.

Kavitha George: And what are the impacts reported as a result of these vacancies?

James Brooks: With fewer plow operators on the roads, we are finding that it takes longer to clear the roads. The roads stay colder longer than they would if the staff were full. In Fairbanks, for example, during the great winter storm, the DOT described a situation where all responders were on the bridge bringing in drivers from different areas, such as moving people from the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks to clear the snow. and ice. And if they had had more drivers in the area, perhaps they could have acted more quickly to deal with the situation. In Homer, for example, they had to move people from Soldotna. And it takes time and overtime. And sometimes people just aren’t available.

Kavitha George: Do you have any idea why we are seeing these vacancies right now? Does this fit into a larger picture of the labor issues we saw during the pandemic?

James Brooks: It seems to be the same sort of thing that we are seeing nationally, where there is a significant demand for specific jobs. And companies are struggling to fill these jobs for a variety of reasons.

Kavitha George: You also pointed out that overall the number of government employees is about the same between this year and last year. So is it just that the particular positions that are not filled are the ones that are really important, like plow operators, where the impacts are felt quite strongly?

James Brooks: That’s a drop of about 200 statewide employees out of 15 or 16,000. So while it’s not a large number in absolute terms, that’s where the vacancies are that have the biggest impact. more effect. Because if there are fewer workers in the courthouse, for example, processing legal files may take longer. If there are fewer plow operators on the road, snow removal may take longer. And if there just aren’t any ferry employees, well, there are minimum standards for navigating a ferry so that ferry cannot operate.

Kavitha George: Understood. What measures is the state taking to try to fill vacant positions, to get these services back on track?

James Brooks: Alaska State Soldiers and the Alaska Department of Corrections have had fairly well established nationwide recruiting efforts. And from what I could find, they weren’t as badly affected as other departments in terms of staff shortages. But in agencies where there are none, a national recruitment effort has also been put in place. This is where I see the most of these shortages.

And so we see the Department of Transport stepping up its recruitment efforts, the Department of Justice has said it is taking additional steps to speed up the process of onboarding people when they are accepted. Last year when the pandemic began, the governor’s office instituted a hiring freeze because with oil prices plummeting, they didn’t know where the budget would end up. In October, this hiring freeze was mostly limited – additional approval is still required for particular high-level positions – but overall the state has returned to normal hiring practices and is then launching these recruiting efforts. additional.

The ferry system, for example, is speeding up a new recruiting program. And the goal is to get more people to work on the ferry system. And that’s quite important. Because even though there aren’t that many ferries in service right now, summer is approaching and there will be a lot of ferries in service. And if they don’t have enough crew to operate right now, what will happen in the summer when there is even more demand?

Kavitha George: So I guess we’ll kinda have to wait and see over the next few months and into the summer.

James Brooks: Exactly. If the hiring struggles continue, then we might see the state starting to address some long-term issues that employees say are a problem. For example, after posting my story, employees came to me and told me that the lack of a retirement program was a problem now. Because remember, about a decade and a half ago, the state cut its pension in favor of a 401K type pension system. Well, the problem with this type of retirement system is that it is very easy for employees to leave the state without penalty. And without any kind of retirement penalty. A pension tends to keep employees in place longer and reduce turnover.

Kavitha George: I mean, something we’ve seen among companies that have had difficulty hiring is that they need to increase wages or benefits. Is there some kind of movement towards this at the state level?

James Brooks: Most government employees are unionized. And therefore their wages and their benefits are fixed by union contracts. Some of these contracts are currently under negotiation. And so I will keep an eye on how these negotiations unfold and see if there is any pressure to raise wages in order to account for inflation and to attract workers.

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