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Governor, industry support group clash over state job numbers amid hiring freeze

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 21, 2016

An oil and gas industry group and the governor's office are clashing over job numbers that show an increase in state employees in recent months.

The Alaska Support Industry Alliance said in blog posts and emails this week that an increase of state jobs between January and March raises questions about how the state is handling its self-imposed hiring restrictions amid a $4 billion budget deficit. A memo issued Wednesday from Gov. Bill Walker's office pushed back against those claims and said seasonal changes are responsible for the uptick.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development's job numbers show that state government gained 500 jobs between January and March -- a number the alliance took issue with.

On Wednesday, the alliance's general manager, Rebecca Logan, emailed lawmakers with the numbers in question and said it would be "pretty tough to try and explain this to folks."

"This is all in the context of a hiring freeze and reducing state government," she said later over the phone. "They're continuing to do business as usual."

But most of the jobs reflected in the increased number were adjunct professors in the University of Alaska system who came back on payroll after the winter holiday break, when they aren't paid, Walker's statement said.

"Alaska has a seasonal economy. March and April tend to be the annual high for state government jobs, as summer workers, like firefighters, start getting hired back," the governor's statement said.

The spat over job numbers comes as a decision over whether to scale back the state's oil tax credits program hangs over the Legislature. Logan recently told Senate Resources Committee members that the Legislature was looking at changing oil tax credits because "you didn't do your job on the budget."

In a post on the alliance's blog, the group said oil and gas jobs were down 2,300 from March 2015 to last month, and compared that to the 500-job increase in the state from January to March this year. Logan wouldn't say who authored the post.

But Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas said in an email that's "comparing apples to race cars." Between the same timeframe as the oil and gas job drop, state government jobs were down by 1,200, she noted.

Dan Robinson, director of research and analysis at the Labor Department, said that a more accurate way to compare job numbers is year-over-year instead of comparing recent months. He said in an email to other department members that the alliance used the data "a little recklessly."

"It's almost never a good idea to look at month to month in Alaska, because we always lose jobs in the fall, and we always add jobs in the spring," he said over the phone. "State government doesn't have a lot of seasonality, but these are higher points."

The university has 500 fewer employees than it did during the same time last year, and last month's job numbers reflect the lowest number of state employees in the month of March since 2008, Walker's statement said.

Robinson said in addition to the university adding about 400 jobs between January and February, the Department of Natural Resources added about 90 jobs. The Labor Department, Legislative Affairs and the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities added about 65 jobs combined. Other state departments lost jobs between January and March.

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