Union plans legal action against state to enforce stay-home policies for workers

JUNEAU — Alaska’s largest public-employee union told members on Monday that it will seek legal action against the state of Alaska on Tuesday unless Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration announces new measures to protect state workers.

The administration did not do so by Monday evening, and Dunleavy said in a call with reporters that state workers are essential.

The governor said allowing individual employees to work from home is a decision made by supervisors, not the governor’s office, but the union disputes that assertion.

“ASEA has no other choice than to move forward with a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) tomorrow if the administration does not take immediate action today,” wrote Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association.

The union intends to ask for an immediate hearing by the Alaska Court System and an injunction requiring the state “to comply with social distancing federal and state guidelines for those employees who are essential, provide proper equipment for employees who interface with the public, and allow those non-essential state employees to telework.”

State employees across Alaska are required to report to work despite a Monday-night order from Dunleavy that closes most businesses and imposes a mandatory two-week quarantine on people arriving in Alaska from Outside.

The closure order has many exemptions, including government employees, who are deemed critical.

“If we could send everybody home in state and municipal government and we thought that our governments could function, our society could function, our civilization could function if we did that, we’d certainly do that, but we know it can’t,” Dunleavy said.

Some state offices have closed themselves to in-person visits while keeping staff in the office. The Alaska Division of Elections stated Monday that it would close its offices to in-person visits. The state division of retirement and benefits is also conducting its business by phone and email only. Many others remain open to in-person visits.

Some state employees, on social media and in letters to the public, said they feel their health is endangered by that openness. Outside the Robert B. Atwood Building in Anchorage, someone stamped a message in the snow: “CLOSE THE OFFICE”.

The governor’s office responded to ASEA’s message with a video message of its own.

In the message, the governor said employees should talk to their supervisors about telework. He also said he has directed the state labor commissioner “to identify processes and tools to keep all employees healthy over the coming weeks as we see more COVID-19 cases in our state.”

The union pushed back at the assertion that supervisors are in charge. It distributed an email sent to one employee who had requested that their supervisor — a division director — allow them to work from home.

“I understand that this is not the most comfortable agreement for many of our staff members. However, the governor’s office has requested that state employees continue to work, and to show up for work, for continuity of operations. This is not negotiable or up for discussion,” the supervisor told the employee.

The state’s guideline for telework specifically state that “a general fear of COVID-19 does not, standing alone, justify a situational telecommute request.”

Someone “COVID-19 symptoms or a COVID-19 symptomatic family member would” qualify, the guideline states.