By Claire Stremple
Alaska Beacon 

State troopers, other agencies struggle under high vacancy rates

 

February 14, 2024



To keep Alaska communities safe and workloads manageable, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jim Cockrell said he would need 35% more state troopers than he has now. After he fills the 62 vacancies in the department, he wants to ask for about 90 more positions. But he said things used to be worse — at one point last year the department had 70 vacancies of 411 trooper positions.

“The bottom line is we’re making steady progress,” he said. “We’ve made some huge steps forward between the administration and the Legislature.”

The Department of Public Safety isn’t alone — most of Alaska’s state agencies have significant vacancy rates. That can cut into state services and even sometimes add to the state budget, depending on the job, according to budget experts.

Cockrell traces the high vacancy rate in his department back to budget cuts from 2014-2018, when he said the department experienced “disastrous” cuts that resulted in the loss of more than 80 positions and the closure of 12 posts. Oil prices were low those years, pushing down state revenues.

He said the department is recovering, but recruitment doesn’t look like it used to: When he started in the early 1980s, he said the department would get 2,000 to 3,000 applicants for each class of troopers.

“Now we’re happy if we get 150 to maybe 200 per class application,” he said.

In general, governments budget for some vacancies — finance analysts anticipate that there will be unfilled positions at any given time — but Alaska’s current vacancy rate is about double the high end of what a state may typically plan for, Alexei Painter, director of Alaska’s Legislative Finance Division, told legislators Jan. 25. The division provides budget analysis for the Legislature.

December’s 14% vacancy rate for state jobs in Alaska is high but an improvement over a year ago, when the rate was 17%, he said. While the broad trend is good, he said some state departments are making progress while others are losing ground.

As of December, Painter said, state job positions with the highest vacancy rates included unemployment benefit workers (37.7%), public health nurses (33.3%), emergency services dispatchers (27.3%), and child support specialists (24.3%).

“Burnout appears to be a problem,” he told the Senate Finance Committee, listing several state agencies with high vacancy rates and heavy “unsustainable workloads” — the Division of Public Assistance, public defenders office and Division of Personnel.

In economic terms, high vacancy rates are a mixed bag for the state. While the money that would have gone to salaries for unfilled positions could be considered cost savings for some positions, Painter said it is actually more expensive for many jobs to go unfilled.

“In some cases, you’ll see vacancies cause increased costs, and then sometimes they create decreased costs depending on the type of position.”

In state agencies where there is a fixed amount of work, such as the Department of Corrections, vacancies can cost more than full-time employees because it is more expensive to pay current employees overtime or contract the work out. “They can’t just say, ‘Well, we don’t have enough people, I guess we’re going to close a prison,’” Painter said. “They have to keep those institutions staffed.”

Fortunately, he said, the Department of Corrections has seen the number of vacant positions shrink over the past year. But in the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, where vacancies are increasing, he said, Alaskans have felt the effects. Service has been reduced on the Alaska Marine Highway System, where limited staff means the agency cannot fully staff its vessels and runs a reduced schedule, keeping ships tied to the dock.

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

 

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