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Prioritizing Outside political donors over Alaska’s families is wrong

  • Author: Heidi Drygas
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 16
  • Published May 15

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks during a press conference Wednesday, May 12, 2021 in the Alaska State Capitol at Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

In yet another example of prioritizing partisanship over the best interest of Alaskans, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is ending the supplemental federal pandemic unemployment insurance, or UI, benefit of $300 per week on June 12. With this senseless decision, Dunleavy joins several other extreme-right governors in canceling needed unemployment assistance, without addressing any of the structural challenges facing Alaska families as our economy struggles to recover from both a recession and a pandemic. Not coincidentally, some of these states — Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Idaho, Arkansas and Arizona — have the lowest wages in the country.

These benefits are offered at no cost to states. Residents of other states, which are frankly in much better economic shape than Alaska, are all benefiting from these funds. Dunleavy’s heartless and unnecessary decision — intended to force struggling Alaskans back to work — fails to address significant impediments facing families: lack of good-paying jobs and limited child care options. I know from personal experience how the lack of child care options affects parents returning to the workforce. My daughter’s day care capped capacity at 50%, and I’ve personally juggled child care and relied on the help of a family friend while trying to earn a living for my family. For many single parents, this cut in benefits will render them unable to get child care in order to search for work — and this is in a state where there was a critical child care shortage even before the pandemic. In short, Dunleavy’s cut actually diminishes Alaska’s available workforce.

Alaska’s economy is suffering from a crisis upon a crisis. Since oil prices plummeted from 2014 to 2021, Alaska has been losing jobs. While some of those jobs are slowly returning, the greatest gains are in low-paying sectors. Jobs in high-paying sectors, such as oil and gas and construction, have not recovered nearly as quickly. From 2019 to 2020, Alaska lost 3,600 oil and gas jobs. And construction workers alone make up 14% of the unemployed. What’s overlooked is the economic impact Dunleavy’s decision will have on Alaska’s overall economy. At a time we can least afford it, Dunleavy just removed nearly $150 million from our state’s economy between June and September. This will hurt Alaska’s small businesses that are struggling to recover from the pandemic economy. It will increase foreclosures and leave families unable to pay rent, hurting landlords who are still recovering from an eviction moratorium that ends on June 30. Homelessness and food insecurity will grow.

What’s particularly cruel about this decision is its timing. At 6.6%, Alaska’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remains one of the highest in the country. Transportation, leisure and hospitality jobs have not fully recovered, in large part due to the pandemic’s massive hit to our tourism industry.

This cut is also illogical because Alaska is actually one of only three states where employees contribute to the unemployment insurance fund — meaning they pay into a pot of money with the understanding that the state will be there for them when times are tough.

The fact that this cut will hurt Alaska families and businesses and arguably make it even harder for the unemployed to return to the workforce raises an important question: Why on Earth is Dunleavy doing it? The answer is simple: He’s more concerned about catering to national right-wing politics than he is about doing what’s right for Alaska. With a recall and reelection breathing down his neck, he’s more worried about pleasing Outside political donors than he is about us.

Dunleavy is kicking Alaskans while they’re down. We need to remember how he’s treating our neighbors when he comes asking for our votes.

Heidi Drygas was born and raised in Fairbanks, and is now an attorney in Juneau. Previously, she served as the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development under Gov. Bill Walker.

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