Compass: City labor ordinance makes police, fire recruiting tougher

What is the old cliché about chickens coming home to roost? Warnings about unintended consequences were downplayed during the "debate" on Anchorage Ordinance 37, the controversial rewrite of Anchorage's labor laws last spring, and now problems are surfacing. Anchorage police and fire departments are having trouble attracting qualified candidates this year and everyone one knows why: Anchorage isn't competitive anymore.

In previous years there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants who tested for the police and fire academies.

At this point, the 2013 police hiring process has only netted half of the qualified applicants that would normally apply. Of those, only about fifty percent even show up for the initial test, and the numbers dwindle from there. The Anchorage Police Department has already lost 30 employees in 2013, so the idea of starting a recruit academy with less than the full complement of 28 is troubling - particularly when only about 70 percent of those recruits traditionally complete the training and hit the street about a year later.

Why aren't there enough applicants for police and fire jobs? The reason is clear. Our city is no longer competitive in the open market. Anchorage's market has been diminished by a combination of factors, and AO 37 appears to have taken us over the tipping point.

A recent TV news story also tried to answer the question as to why the Anchorage police and fire departments are having trouble recruiting individuals to test for positions. The Anchorage Fire Department had its lowest turnout for the initial employment exam since 2001. Fire Chief Chris Bushue stated that it could be "the moon or AO 37". In the same story, Police Chief Mark Mew remarked that he had heard that "the ordinance" was a topic of potential prospects at public safety job fairs.

To be fair, other factors are taking a toll as well.

One of the biggest reasons is that Anchorage lacks a competitive public safety retirement system and potential recruits know it. New public safety employees do not have a defined benefit pension, are prohibited from participating in Social Security and, unlike State of Alaska employees, have no Supplementary Benefit System. In fact, the Social Security benefits that have careers in local public safety will be reduced due to the Federal Windfall Elimination Act. It's a challenge to find any employer, public or private, which fails to offer similarly skilled employees a worse package.

Threats of layoffs for new employees have become as expected as the snowfall, increasing stress levels for potential candidates and new employees who are considering raising a family in Anchorage. Normal workplace stress follows people home, and police and fire employees are no exception. Adding all of these issues to the long hours, irregular scheduling and potential for physical danger or even death are resulting in fewer people who are interested in working here, especially as the economy in the rest of the United States continues to recover.

Although it's just one piece of the puzzle, the passage of AO 37 has already had dramatic and negative impacts on the future working conditions of our police and fire employees. Our employees lose the ability to have a voice into their schedules, shifts and workplace safety rules. Add this to layoff threats, staffing levels that are constantly being used as political footballs and retirement uncertainty and one can see how AO 37 has become the "straw that broke the camel's back."

The good news is it's not over yet. Neither the police or fire hiring is 100 percent complete and we're confident that community leaders, whether elected or not, will soon begin discussions about 2014 academies. We're optimistic that Anchorage residents will rally and demand action. With the number of Anchorage police officers projected to drop below 350 shortly and the Anchorage Fire Department having to take valuable equipment out of service regularly, now is the time to act.


Sgt. Derek Hsieh is a veteran Anchorage police officer and head of the police union. Brian xxxxx is a lifelong Anchorage resident and six-year police veteran.