Starting Monday, the state of Alaska will ask many of its 14,000 employees to work from home for the next 30 days, part of an effort to limit the state’s COVID-19 crisis.
The shift to “an emphasis on teleworking to the maximum extent practical” was announced in a Wednesday memo from Gov. Mike Dunleavy to agency commissioners.
That change reverses — at least temporarily — a May policy change that put workers back in the office at least part of the time.
Alaska is experiencing an unprecedented surge in the number of severe COVID-19 cases that has overwhelmed hospitals here.
The state of Alaska does not mandate masks for most employees and it does not require them to be vaccinated. Public health officials have repeatedly said masks, social distancing and vaccinations are the best ways to prevent COVID-19 infection and to reduce the severity of infections if they do occur.
Kate Sheehan, director of the state division of personnel and labor relations, said details of the new shift are being worked out at the agency and division level, and more information will be available Friday.
In an email to state labor leaders, Sheehan said, “For the next 30 days, those employees who can telework, should telework full-time. We will still need to keep offices open, so commissioners are spending tomorrow and Friday working on a plan. The new telework plan will begin on Monday.”
“This is welcome news,” said Brian Penner, director of the union that represents supervisory employees.
“We’ve been hearing from supervisors who are not only concerned about their own safety, but concerned about the people they supervise,” he said. “They can’t even keep the people they supervise safe. It should’ve happened earlier.”
More than 6,000 state employees were asked to work from home starting in 2020. That program was phased out this spring in favor of a “hybrid” system in which employees could work from home or the office.
“Employees are no longer expected to need telework 100% of their working time,” the state’s new policy read.
Jake Metcalfe, director of the state’s largest public employee union, said the drawback of the hybrid model is that it may not be applied equally to every employee because individual departments or agencies make the decisions.
Dan Saddler, a special assistant with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said at his agency, “Starting Monday, employees who wish to work from home may do so, while those who feel more comfortable at their regular duty stations in an office or shop may do so.”
DNR handles state land-use permits, among other responsibilities, and Saddler said the department is “encouraging members of the public to take advantage of the online, telephone and mail tools for doing business with us, and in cases where they want or need to meet in person to get their needs met, we will accommodate them.”
The Municipality of Anchorage has not issued a new work-from-home order. Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the department, said agency directors are already empowered to make decisions on telework.
Young said that in his personal experience, many municipal employees are already working from home.
“A lot of people are already following those policies. There’s really just not a lot of people that are in these offices,” he said.