By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Severe staff shortage delays state approval of occupational licenses

 

April 26, 2023



After waiting six months for a license to operate, an Anchorage psychologist asked Senate Majority Leader Cathy Giessel for help.

But when the Anchorage Republican called the licensing office, she was greeted by voicemail. The person in charge of answering the phones had quit and wasn’t replaced.

“Professional licenses are required to get people to work. That division doesn’t have enough people to even answer the phone,” Giessel said last month.

That person wasn’t alone — last year, the state reported that 39 occupational license-examiner jobs were vacant, almost one in five people assigned to that job statewide. That’s actually an improvement: In December 2021, fully a third of the state’s licensing examiner jobs were vacant.

As a result, professionals licensed by the state are reporting monthslong waits for new permits or renewals, slowing businesses statewide. Some boards and commissions have voted to take emergency action, extending existing licenses longer than normally allowed by state law.

Before joining the Legislature this year, Soldotna Rep. Justin Ruffridge was chair of the state Board of Pharmacy.

That board processes renewals in June; for the past two cycles, the board had to extend expirations through September.

“I would say staffing shortages are probably the biggest hurdle to overcome,” he said. “Turnover is pretty high in the department and they are working pretty hard to actually unify some of those licensing issues. At the moment, though, it still is a bit of a hurdle. I still hear a few complaints from people about weeks of time waiting for licensing and things of that nature, but I know that I’m pretty confident that that’s gonna get worked out.”

To address the problem, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has proposed a major increase in the budget for the state’s office of professional licensing, and lawmakers appear ready to approve that request.

In a budget with few increases in state spending, it’s a notable exception.

In February, Dunleavy requested 12 new licensing positions at a cost of $1.5 million. Legislators are in the final weeks of working on the budget before adjournment.

The state’s licensing branch has been squeezed by more than just a staffing shortfall. Over the past 10 years, state figures show the number of licenses issued by the Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing has risen by 64%.

While some of that increase was caused by a growing number of workers, it’s also been caused by regulatory spread.

In fiscal year 2012, the division licensed 98 professions. Ten years later, it licensed 118.

During the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, the licensing situation was so dire that the state used emergency rules to suspend many kinds of health care licenses, an act that allowed out-of-state workers to arrive and treat Alaskans.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that just under 23% of full-time workers in the United States work under some kind of occupational license or certificate. Alaska falls on the lower end of the regulatory scale among the 50 states.

Alaska licenses funeral directors but not building inspectors, manicurists but not private investigators.

Lawmakers are proposing additional occupations come under state approval, potentially adding to the workload of state licensing officials. This year, legislators have introduced legislation that would regulate associate counselors, naturopaths and interior designers.

Some state licenses are mandated by the federal government, Ruffridge noted. As online pharmacies grew in popularity, Congress passed legislation that mandates oversight.

“Not everything’s local anymore. Before it was like, ‘I’m your pharmacist, I’m in your town. My pharmacy is licensed, and I’m licensed, and I’m just here,’” he said. “And now a pharmacy in Florida is offering services in Alaska, and it’s gotten very big.”

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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