Shutdown notebook: Alaska federal workers in decline, Don Young, closed commissaries

ldemer@adn.comOctober 5, 2013 

While the federal shutdown hasn't gone on long enough to damage Alaska's economy, the state already has been quietly losing federal jobs, with more to come, says one of the state's top economists.

The main cause: the budget sequestration, or automatic federal budget cuts that started kicking in earlier this year as laid out in a 2011 budget bill. And that's on top of a crackdown on earmarks, which for years flowed to Alaska in generous amounts.

"Federal employment has fallen pretty significantly in the last year, year and half," said economist Neal Fried with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "It's a drag on our economy now and it has been for a while. But it's been fairly subtle."

In 2011, the state had an average of 17,037 federal jobs, not counting active duty military. Last year, it was 16,390. And the average for the first quarter of this year was 15,411, down from 16,199 a year earlier, according to labor department figures. The peak of about 20,000 came in 1993, according to a labor department report this month on federal jobs.

There haven't been big layoffs. Some federal offices are reducing hours. Some have managed through hiring freezes. They aren't replacing people who leave.

"It's good that individuals didn't lose their jobs," Fried said Friday. "But it doesn't mean the job isn't gone from the economy. Because it is."

And the jobs are good jobs, paying $71,775 on average. Federal health managers, food scientists and administrative law judges are all among those that make more than someone doing the work for another employer, the state labor department report said. Exceptions to the higher-than-normal pay: petroleum engineers and podiatrists.

The federal payroll in Alaska amounted to $1.2 billion last year. Billions more are spent on the military and through grants and contracts. In all, federal spending represents about one-third of the dollars that flow into the state's economy, Scott Goldsmith, the former director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, has found.

Alaska generally takes in more federal dollars, per resident, than any other state or close to it, Fried said. Measuring that from now on will be much harder. The federal government no longer publishes its big report consolidating all federal spending by state, he said.

After the Department of Defense, with 5,175 federal employees last year, the next biggest federal employers were the Department of Interior, with 2,645 employees; the Department of Agriculture, with 1,612; the Post Office, with 1,455; and the Federal Aviation Administration with 1,278, the October labor report said. The smallest was the Small Business Administration, with 12 employees. But some other agencies, not listed in the report, are even smaller, such as the National Archives at Anchorage, with three full-time employees.

State economists predict Alaska will lose 300 more jobs this year.

As to the shutdown, Fried said it may be too short to matter. The last one in 1995-96 lasted 21 days. He just took a fresh look and couldn't find any hit to the economy.

Parnell wants wildlife refuges opened

Gov. Sean Parnell is trying to reverse one result of the government shutdown: Closure of wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Friday, he called Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, and asked her to allow access to the refuges for fishing and hunting.

They cover extensive areas of Alaska from parts of the Kenai Peninsula to the Yukon Flats to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service had told his office it was closing them except for subsistence hunters and fishermen.

Alaskans are supposed to be guaranteed access to federal lands, under the Alaska National Interest Land Conversation Act, Parnell told Jewell. The National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management are allowing continued access to wild lands in Alaska, and so should the Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

"The Secretary was gracious and promised to have a person review my concerns, particularly my assertion that ANILCA entitles Alaskans to access to federal lands," Parnell said in an emailed statement Friday evening. "Because of that law, Alaskans have greater access rights to federal lands in our state than in other states."

JBER shopping closed

While the active duty military is spared from furloughs, soldiers and air crews along with their families are losing a shopping perk during the shutdown.

Base commissaries closed starting Wednesday, said Kevin Robinson, a Virginia-based spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency.

Commissaries offer groceries at a discount of more than 30 percent compared to commercial grocery stores, Robinson said.

Young looking for changes to health care

U.S. Rep. Don Young says he's joined a bipartisan group that wants to halt the shutdown with a measure to fund the government through March. But the group also proposes to eliminate what he calls the "costly medical device tax" in the Affordable Care Act. An aide said he hasn't agreed to join with House Democrats to force a vote on a "clean" budget bill -- one not mucked up with changes to the health care law, or other things.

Young did sign on as co-sponsor to a measure that would ensure furloughed employees are paid retroactively.

Military and Coast Guard Furloughs

Besides the 5,000 Alaska civilians furloughed from their jobs on Army and Air Force installations in Alaska, a few civilians who work for the Coast Guard have been sent home. Not all Coast Guard operations fall under the Juneau command, but of those that do, 35 were furloughed, said Lt. Veronica Colbath. They mainly are planners and administrative types though they also include boat safety specialists, she said. Anyone deemed critical to operations remains on the job. Most of the Department of Defense civilians are being called back to work, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday. The Coast Guard, however, is under the Department of Homeland Security.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

 

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