Alaska News

Impacts of vacant state jobs ripple through Alaska, from a plow driver shortage to a tied-up ferry

JUNEAU — In late November, Juneau resident Ash Hartzell was among dozens of drivers confronted by a sheet of ice glazing the bridge between downtown Juneau and Douglas Island.

Hartzell, sitting in the passenger seat of the family truck, was a captive audience as the truck’s tires skidded across the ice, carrying her and her husband up and over a nearby roundabout.

“The impact hurt physically, but we were both OK. Maybe a little shaken,” she said. The ice “definitely felt like an issue that should have been addressed right away.”

Similar scenarios have played out across Alaska this winter, as large parts of the state experience heavier than normal snowfall and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities copes with a shortage of plow drivers.

Other individual state departments say services provided to Alaskans are suffering as a result of job vacancies. And even though figures provided by the state after a public records request don’t show a significant difference between the number of state employees across all departments now compared to this time a year ago, the vacancies are taking a toll.

The problems have been particularly acute at DOT, and especially among plow crews. In Juneau, the conditions Hartzell experienced were directly attributable to a staffing shortfall that left fewer people driving the plows that clear the bridge.

“In Juneau specifically, we’re down three positions out of 14 total, so we’re down by over 20%,” said Sam Dapcevich, a spokesman for DOT in coastal Alaska.

In Fairbanks, which has been clobbered by a series of winter storms, the state road maintenance crew has 10 open positions. That’s more than 300% of the expected vacancy rate, as judged by the state Office of Management and Budget.

To help deal with the storms, the state called in off-duty workers and transferred some from other assignments, like clearing the Dalton Highway, which leads to Prudhoe Bay.

In Homer, only three of seven plow drivers were available during a November storm, DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said. In Valdez, the vacancy rate is also about 20%. But in Anchorage, the Mat-Su and Western Alaska, the number of vacant positions isn’t unusually high, she said earlier this month.

DOT is struggling to staff other jobs, too. The Alaska Marine Highway System’s ferry Tazlina has been tied to a dock in Juneau because of a lack of staff, and with other ferries suffering mechanical problems, the state is hurrying to put together a crew and get it operating.

“It’s important to share that AMHS staffing shortages have never been as significant as they are right now,” deputy DOT commissioner Rob Carpenter wrote this week in a letter to the mayors of Haines and Skagway.

Shannon Adamson, local boss of the union representing ferry deck officers, said there is a nationwide shortage of maritime workers and the state, in some ways, is lucky that it doesn’t have many ferries operating. If the staffing issues aren’t fixed by summer, when more ferries are scheduled to run, “it’s going to be a serious problem,” she said.

At the courthouse in Bethel, staff shortages mean extended delays. A challenge to Alaska’s newly redistricted political map, for example, wasn’t publicly posted until four days after it was filed.

In the Alaska Department of Law, a shortage of attorneys has staff stressed.

“I know from talking to (the attorney general), it’s pretty stressful, and they’re having a hard time — like all state agencies — recruiting,” said Corri Feige, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, in November.

“It is a very tight labor market,” Marcus Frampton, chief investment officer of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., said at a board of trustees meeting in early December.

The Permanent Fund had only four open positions at the time — not an unusual number — but it was having trouble filling them. (This was before the board of trustees fired executive director Angela Rodell.)

“We are experiencing the exact same thing throughout the state of Alaska,” Department of Revenue commissioner Lucinda Mahoney said.

In some cases, Mahoney said, a job opening will receive 1,000 views online but result in only three applications.

The state is taking some steps to address the vacancies. The Alaska State Troopers and Alaska Department of Corrections have historically had successful recruitment programs, and the Alaska Marine Highway System is starting up one of its own.

“AMHS has embarked on an aggressive recruiting effort and has brought on 30 additional unlicensed crew, but many more are needed,” Carpenter told the mayors.

At the Department of Law, spokesman Aaron Sadler said the agency is offering flexible start dates, increased promotional opportunities and help for moving expenses to attract new attorneys.

“In addition, we are strengthening our Fellows program, which is a way new lawyers can get needed legal experience and hopefully move toward permanent roles within the Department,” he said.

Statewide, the governor’s chief of staff has relaxed a hiring freeze that was put into place in March 2020. That freeze was mostly lifted in October, but hiring for some nonunion jobs still requires special review.

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