Governor should help get the work done

Employers everywhere are finding it hard to recruit and retain employees. But it sure seems that the state of Alaska, under the disengaged leadership of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, is sinking to new lows of high vacancies.

The empty desks and undone work are degrading public services and hurting Alaskans.

The administration’s reactions have been to express concern, provide excuses, talk about doing better and, in some offices, shuffle around available personnel to plug the biggest holes. And the governor proclaimed May 10 as State Employee Appreciation Day, without any mention of the extra workload on employees trying to get the job done with vacancy rates in double-digit percentages.

Meanwhile, the governor’s fixation on the Permanent Fund dividend is proving to be more of a political popularity magnet than a job applicant attraction. Alaska continues to lose more residents than it has gained for 10 years running. Those are lost workers.

The Legislature this past spring added $1 million to the budget for the Department of Administration to study whether salaries should be increased for state employees. No news on when that will happen.

Meanwhile, the department has its own problems. As of early August, 31 of 67 budgeted positions at its payroll division were vacant. Officials said it has been that way “for some time.” The results are errors and delays in issuing paychecks for many state employees.

While advertising the open positions and offering bonuses to take a job or stay on the job, the department has gone out of state and out of country to sign a contract with a Canadian IT firm to handle some of the payroll work with remote employees in Alabama, the Alaska Beacon reported earlier this month. The state will pay $45.50 an hour for the remote payroll analysts, much more than the $22.69 it would pay a state employee in a comparable position in Alaska— if it had an actual employee.

Granted, there would be benefit costs on top of the $22.69 for a state employee, but the math is certain: The state is paying a lot more to privatize the work than it would cost if a public employee were at the desk.

The Department of Health is another one with a serious shortage of public employees to provide services, particularly for Medicaid and food stamp applicants. Delays in reviewing and approving benefits are counted in months. The Legislature stepped up with additional funding in a fast-track spending bill to hire more staff for the Division of Public Assistance. Five months later, the agency was still waiting for the hiring office to post 15 new job openings.

The Department of Transportation, which manages the Alaska Marine Highway System, has been so short of onboard crew for so long that full staffing is a distant memory.

Even though the system would like to run the Kennicott next spring, it announced earlier this month that “due to the existing shortage of vessel crews” it would not accept reservations on the Kennicott for April and May 2024.

The problem isn’t just a shortage of onboard workers. The ferry system this month cut back its customer service call center hours due to staffing, advising those who try calling during the shortened hours: “Please expect long hold times.”

In a report a year ago, the vacancy rates were 30% at the child support collections office, 16% at the Division of Motor Vehicles, 21% at the commercial fisheries agency and 24% at the Department of Revenue Tax Division — the people who collect money for the state.

Perhaps the governor should spend less time on national political issues and more time recruiting at job fairs, high schools and university classes, and working with legislators to improve pay and benefits for public employees. Either that or take a seat and handle ferry reservations or food stamp applications.

 

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