James Brooks’ Sept. 18 piece in the Alaska Beacon about an $800,000 compensation study aimed at solving the State of Alaska’s hiring and retention woes reflects a certain level of denial and myopia in the executive branch.
For many employees, the state of Alaska is a toxic environment that systematically treats its workers like infants and criminals who are out to fleece their employer instead of like the adult professionals that they are. Almost weekly, I hear from state employees who are too afraid to comment publicly on the abysmal working conditions they are laboring under. It doesn’t help that their current chief executive, Gov. Mike Dunleavy, considers law and ethics to be loose suggestions at best.
Well beyond salaries, the state needs to do some serious soul searching on its draconian and outdated employment culture. That culture is not the result of any one agency, employee, or manager. Rather, it’s an entire system of priorities, norms and assumptions that have been allowed to develop over decades, with no apparent scrutiny or self-reflection, and that can be dismantled if those in power choose to do so.
For example: Failure to adequately train management promotes workers who were great at their jobs, but can’t manage their former colleagues — a perfect illustration of “the Peter Principle.” Hassling employees over petty “infractions” like hot plates in cubicles and $3 cab tips during state travel breeds cynicism, disincentivizes hard work and hobbles morale. The crippling, glacial bureaucracy in hiring results in state government losing great job candidates who just can’t afford to wait around any longer for a decision. Prioritizing quantity over quality of work and a “chain of command” modeled off the military puts the whole workforce at war with itself and with the public. Collective bargaining and the occasional good boss can only go so far in mitigating these problems.
And then there’s just flat breaking the law.
I worked as an assistant attorney general in the Alaska Department of Law for 12 years. After being unconstitutionally fired in violation of my free speech rights under both the state and federal constitutions, I embarked on a five-year legal battle in federal court to prove it and won. So it’s tempting to construe these observations as disgruntlement or sour grapes on my part, and maybe rightly so. But again, I am hardly alone in my experience with state employment. Even while working there, I encountered plenty of these issues. I did my best to ignore them, because I worked with (and for) some great people, and had lots of interesting and rewarding work to do.
In the post-COVID era, though, prospective employees are simply not going to tolerate the type of working environment the State has fostered. It’s a seller’s market for labor, and the product the executive branch is selling is defective at its core. That’s true no matter the salary or even the benefits, which also have been whittled away. It took working for an employer that openly values my work, compensates me accordingly and treats me like a grownup to realize I’d been experiencing a form of Stockholm Syndrome during my time with the State.
If the executive branch is trying to break government to prove government is broken, it’s working. Those who suffer most are Alaskans who can’t access basic public services from reliable workers, and who simply don’t want to live or work here anymore because of it. The fact that other jobs in other sectors might also suck in similar ways isn’t an excuse for the State’s refusal to grow and change.
If the State truly wants to cure its “employment woes,” it doesn’t need an $800,000 contract to do it. What it needs is a long, hard look in the mirror.
Libby Bakalar is an attorney and freelance writer who blogs at One Hot Mess Alaska. She is a former assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska.
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