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Judge says Alaska government can keep workers in offices during coronavirus pandemic

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An Alaska Superior Court judge sided with the state Tuesday, ruling Gov. Mike Dunleavy has the authority to keep state workers on the job during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Alaska State Employees Association sued the state on March 24, asking for a temporary restraining order to allow a number of state workers to work from home.

The complaint states that those who can’t work from home should be provided personal protective equipment and have their workplace modified so employees can be socially distant from other employees and the public. Since the virus spread to Alaska, state workers have complained publicly and privately that they are being put at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews denied the temporary restraining order.

“ASEA’s argument fundamentally fails to address the impact of the governor’s disaster declaration,” Matthews said in his ruling. "In times of declared disaster, including a public health emergency, the governor ‘is responsible for meeting the dangers presented by disaster to the state and its people.’ In responding to a disaster, the governor has broad power to issue orders, and regulations necessary (to) address the disaster.”

“Judge Matthews recognized that government power regarding how to address the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to maintain essential state services, is entrusted to the Governor and not the judiciary,” Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson said in a written statement. "The State of Alaska is doing all it can to ensure the safety of our valued state employees.”

The union, representing about 7,900 members, claimed Dunleavy was forcing state employees to work while asking other Alaskans stay home due to the dangers of the virus. It claimed the state failed to enact its own safety policies when it comes to its own employees, denying telework requests from nonessential state workers without explanation.

The union pointed to Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who ordered many municipal employees to work from home on March 19.

While the temporary restraining order was denied, the lawsuit remains open. A status conference is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

In a statement Tuesday, the union’s executive director, Jake Metcalfe, said the union will review the order before deciding how to proceed.

“Our goal in this case is and continues to be the protection of the health and safety of all Alaskans," Metcalfe said. "The Court today did not say that state employees are safe. It said that the Governor has the discretion under this emergency declaration to determine who is essential and who is not – and for some reason this Governor seems to want to make sure everyone is working despite the risk of violating serious safety measures and mandates that are in place for the rest of the state.”

Clarkson and Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka argue the state instituting necessary safety measures while ensuring critical functions of the state remain operational.

“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.

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