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Alaska state safety regulator plans no new COVID-19 rules for businesses

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, photographed April 9, 2020 in Juneau. (James Brooks / ADN)

Alaska’s office of worker safety told state lawmakers Wednesday that it is not planning any new rules to deal specifically with the coronavirus pandemic.

Joseph Knowles, director of the labor standards and safety division of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state offers consultation and training to businesses that want to implement their own programs but is not planning new regulations that mandate measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. He said the state has a “general duty” clause that requires businesses to keep their employees safe.

Knowles also said his office was not involved in the state’s mid-May decision to lift public-health restrictions on private businesses. Since the state lifted those restrictions, Alaska has seen a surge in coronavirus cases.

Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel and chair of the House Health and Social Services Committee, said she was “alarmed” at the lack of coordination between the state’s workplace safety office and the rest of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

Zulkosky and Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, chaired Wednesday’s joint meeting of the House State Affairs and Health and Social Services committees. Both chairs have encouraged the state to mandate specific actions, including masking and social distancing. The Dunleavy administration has generally encouraged voluntary, rather than mandated, action.

Deborah Kelly, a former director of the labor standards and safety division, said having specific regulations makes it easier for the state to determine whether an employee is at risk in a given situation. The “general duty” clause cited by Knowles is difficult to enforce, she said.

Though some lawmakers may be dissatisfied with the situation, the Alaska Legislature is currently out of session and unable to pass legislation. Convening a special session requires 40 of the Legislature’s 60 members to agree, and several legislators said there is no consensus about the goals or the need for a special session.

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