Year after year, state employees and their families are put through incredible stress during the state operating budget debates. Their livelihoods depend on the timely passage of an operating budget by July 1. Lately, the threat of a shutdown has been used as leverage and is a prime example of putting politics over people. These state employees are our family members, our friends and our neighbors. They teach our children, protect our communities, fight wildfires and look after and care for our most vulnerable residents at the Pioneer Homes, Alaska Psychiatric Institute and other state facilities. They are Alaskans working for Alaska no matter what comes their way, and they consistently get the job done.
Last year, we saw state virologists, public health nurses, emergency dispatchers, employees working in 24-hour facilities, and other essential workers on the frontline against the novel coronavirus. Many employees reported receiving little support from the state in terms of personal protective equipment or safe working environments, let alone clear guidance and communications. Despite the challenges, state employees went above and beyond to move Alaska forward and help us through one of the state’s most difficult periods.
An employee working at the Anchorage Jail that contracted COVID-19 shared his experience after staff and inmates did all they could to prevent contracting the disease:
“I could not get out of bed for 10 days and was out of work for 14 days. Even though the virus knocked me down, as soon as it was safe, I knew I had a responsibility to help our facility that was short-staffed. I wanted to get back to help my co-workers and inmates. That was my job. To get back and assist. Months later, I still haven’t recovered all of my taste or smell. I’m run-down, tired and easily lose energy. But our job as public employees is to get back up and keep truckin’ because our jobs are critical to keep the state running.”
This is what public service is, answering the call to serve, no matter what. For public employees, these aren’t just jobs. Alaska’s public employees want to work because their work makes a difference in our communities, in our state. We have been blessed with incredibly talented, dedicated professionals that know Alaska, love Alaska and want to continue making Alaska a great place to live and work.
Last month, state employees truly feared the prospect of being laid off or furloughed. If the worst-case scenario played out, tens of thousands of Alaskans would have been stripped of their ability to do their jobs and earn a paycheck. The stress to hard-working Alaskans and their families was incalculable and inexcusable.
Threatening layoffs and furloughs is not the way to thank the public service heroes that risk everything to keep Alaskans safe. The lives and well-being of public employees is not a political football. I know I speak for many when I say that I hope this is a practice we can put behind us.
But as always, we got through it, together. I want to thank ASEA members for sticking together, for being engaged, and active when their voice and participation was needed most. I also want to thank our union siblings in the other bargaining units. Together, we are able to navigate these ups and downs. That’s what a union is, and what the labor movement in Alaska is all about. It’s about teamwork, solidarity and having a collective voice. I couldn’t be prouder of Alaska’s public employees and am honored to serve the people that give so much of themselves, serving us, every day.
Thank you to all who voted to keep Alaska open. From here on out, let’s do all we can to ensure Alaska stays open.
Jake Metcalfe is a lifelong Alaskan and serves as the executive director for ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 in Anchorage.
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