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Governor is failing to protect state workers

  • Author: Jake Metcalfe
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 1
  • Published April 1

Gov. Dunleavy speaks on a video press conference, March 23, 2020. (Video screenshot)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has correctly ordered Alaskans to shelter at home, practice physical and social distancing, and telework. These orders protect Alaskans and slow the spread of this lethal disease. At the same time, the governor has ordered state workers to report to work and interact with the public — in violation of his own orders. Gov. Dunleavy says that state workers are permitted to telework, but that is not true. State employees are being denied telework requests without any explanation or rational basis. Some state offices cannot offer the mandated physical distance. Some state employees are still interfacing with the public without personal protective equipment. This is unacceptable.

Other states have decisively acted to protect the state employees in order to the flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Louisiana and Kentucky have closed state offices to the public. Other states have sent nonessential employees home. Those state leaders recognize that social distancing protects everyone.

Union members want to work. They care about this state and the people who need state services. But if the governor is intent on keeping all state offices open — as stated repeatedly to the public and to employees — he must ensure safe working conditions that slow the spread of this disease. My office has received hundreds of emails and phone calls from concerned union members. Department of Motor Vehicles employees interface with the public without any physical distancing or physical barriers. Some do not have the proper protective equipment. Division of Public Assistance employees work in open air pods, less than six feet apart, in offices with more than 10 people. These conditions threaten state workers and the public safety. These conditions allow the virus to spread.

How can the governor protect the public at large when he fails to protect the workers he is forcing to report to work? The conflict between what the governor is ordering Alaskans to do on one hand, and ordering his employees to do on the other, is inexplicable, irrational, and dangerous.

Last week, in Juneau, a union member sadly tested positive for COVID-19. This employee reported to work for several days before learning that he tested positive. Public employees often work in big office buildings, interfacing with hundreds of surfaces in elevators, breaks rooms, bathrooms and stairwells. This employee worked in open cubicles and offices, with more than 50 employees on the same floor, using one primary door for ingress and egress. Employees report bringing makeshift barriers into work in order to increase social distance between desks. Simply put, the state of Alaska is failing its employees and endangering the public by enforcing unsafe working conditions.

Because the governor would not act, we sued the state last week to ask the court to order the state of Alaska to follow its own mandates. A hearing in the case took place on Friday, with all parties appearing via telephone. Why? Because the Alaska Court System has followed the governor’s mandates, preventing any unnecessary interactions between people.

We need leaders who are consistent and resolute in stopping the spread of this disease. Unlike any time in recent history, our lives may depend on it. Gov. Dunleavy is frustrating the safety of state workers and the public at large by forcing his own employees into unsafe working conditions. For these mandates to work, all Alaskans should follow them. For the safety and health of all Alaskans, Gov. Dunleavy’s orders should apply to state workers.

Jake Metcalfe is the Executive Director of ASEA/AFSCME Local 52, as well as Secretary-Treasurer of the Alaska AFL-CIO.

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