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Union sues state, saying it has failed to protect workers from coronavirus

The State Office Building in Juneau is seen on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (James Brooks / ADN)

JUNEAU — Alaska’s largest public-employee union has sued the state in Superior Court, alleging it has failed to properly protect workers from the coronavirus pandemic.

State workers have grown increasingly vocal in the past week, saying the administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy is putting them in danger by keeping offices open while ordering private businesses to close. The governor has said he views the work of government employees as vital to society and civilization.

The Alaska State Employees Association’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of 7,900 members, states in part that “the state is failing to provide a safe environment for ASEA members and other employees as required by the (collective bargaining act) and Alaska law.”

The suit asks the state’s court system to issue an injunction requiring the state to “provide a safe work environment for all state employees,” something the union interprets as protective equipment and allowing employees to work from home.

In response, Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka and Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said the state is doing what it can.

“The state provides many essential services and it is not responsible for the state to completely close down all of its offices and allow everyone to go on administrative leave,” they said in a written statement.

“Protective measures have to vary by agency and office, and state offices are doing all they can, as fast as they can, to allow work from home, staggered hours, and limiting employee contact to avoid the spread of contagions,” they said.

Speaking publicly on social media and privately by email and phone, some employees said they either haven’t seen those measures or think they’re inadequate.

“The state’s not ready for telework on a mass scale,” said Leslie Ridle, commissioner of the Department of Administration under former Gov. Bill Walker.

That department is the state’s support branch, handling payroll and other services for most other agencies. Ridle said she isn’t “throwing shade” at the Dunleavy administration — she doesn’t believe any state has the procedures and equipment ready to have most of their employees work from home.

Since leaving the state, she’s gone on to supervise the Girl Scouts of Alaska. That organization has only about 20 employees, but even it can’t do its work entirely from home.

“We’re actually more flexible because we have laptops and docking stations, but I’ve still got to come in on Thursdays and sign paychecks,” she said.

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