For Alaska state employees, temporary pandemic telework may become permanent

More than 6,000 of Alaska’s 14,000 state employees are working from home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. For some, the alternate working conditions will soon become permanent. For many more, a long-term change is in the works.

According to public records, the state of Alaska is spending at least $58.2 million in federal COVID-19 aid on a permanent telework program for state employees.

The effort, called the Pandemic Preparedness Program, will not be fully implemented until 2022, but the state has already bought thousands of laptops and other equipment to support telework, and the budget proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy last week indicates that some state agencies are switching to permanent telework or a hybrid system that limits office time.

The state’s Division of Public Assistance, which handles food stamps, housing aid, heating assistance, senior benefits and other programs, would shrink from 460 permanent full-time positions to 344.

“Due to telework and advancing technology related to Electronic Document Management (EDM) the division is processing incoming work more efficiently,” budget documents state as the reason for more than 100 of those job losses.

Some Anchorage employees at the Alaska Division of Health Care Services received an email last week telling them to begin cleaning out their offices. With more people working from home, the division doesn’t need as much office space. It’s ending a commercial lease.

“While this can seem daunting, it offers us an exciting opportunity to create a modernized work center with ‘touch down’ docking stations,” the email said. “This will assist with a hybrid of telework and a safe space to do project-focused meetings on-site.”

If employees need to print paper documents, “You are welcome to purchase equipment from surplus if you choose to do so,” the email stated. “If you do purchase printers, you will be responsible for all print cartridges and paper for your personal printer. This gets HCS to a more efficient paperless virtual environment.”

The Department of Administration, in charge of the state Office of Information Technology and the Pandemic Preparedness Program, said in a written statement that it is “not aware of a policy decision across all state departments to shift to permanent telework. This would be a question best answered by the office of the Governor or the Office of Management and Budget.”

The governor’s office answered questions with a written statement on Thursday morning.

“We asked agencies to consider the impacts of COVID telework on their budget/operations and if they found sustainable changes that could be implemented to bring them forward. Some areas currently teleworking are not necessarily doing so to the benefit of productivity and effectiveness, others are. That’s why you only see telework addressed in a couple places and not throughout the budget. We kept the changes to those areas where telework is sustainable in the long term,” said Lauren Giliam, deputy press secretary for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Brian Penner, director of the union that represents higher-level state employees, said it’s clear that Alaska is moving toward permanent telework on a broad basis.

“I think they’ve been very open that they want to move that direction. They’re not trying to hide that,” he said.

The Department of Health and Social Services is the state’s largest agency, employing more than 3,000 people, including those who received the memo about their office closing.

Commissioner Adam Crum said the governor has left telework up to individual departments.

“The governor and the chief of staff continually tell us to make the best business decisions for our departments so we can provide the best services to Alaskans,” he said.

“We’re just making sure that we provide the best service possible to Alaskans as we move ahead. Whether that means that certain groups will be teleworking, you know, nothing’s been decided yet for permanency. It’s going to be these business decisions as we roll this out,” Crum said.

In Crum’s department, the directors of the health care and public assistance divisions have found telework more efficient than pre-pandemic office work.

The health care division spends about $40 million per week, paying doctors and other medical providers for Alaskans’ care. It also performs background checks to prevent fraud. That requires a lot of paperwork, but when the pandemic hit and employees started staying home, that paperwork had to be done digitally, said Renee Gayhart, director of the division.

“And so we could realign and repurpose things and figure out, ‘Hey, we can do this paperless and virtual, and we can get things done quicker.’ So it’s kind of given us a nice opportunity to say how could we do this going forward, instead of just jumping back to the old way,” she said.

“We’re finding a lot of efficiencies with that paperless virtual environment because there are various layers of documents that have to go through the system whether we’re making the $40 million check-write a week or we’re doing any portion of the 30,000 background checks,” she said.

While some employees will still need to come into the office, telework is allowing the department to consolidate its Anchorage work into a smaller space and cancel a building lease.

Most of the state’s health care services staff works in places where internet access is easy. But Shawnda O’Brien, director of the public assistance division, has employees spread across the state.

“I have staff in Bethel who prefer to work at the office because they can’t afford to keep up with the cost of their internet at home,” she said.

“We’re looking at, like Renee said, deploying state-issued cellphones to locations where we know that internet costs are really high. And so maybe those staff can use hotspots on their state-issued cellphone in place of their home internet,” she said.

But even with those issues, her division has also found a paperless office to be much more efficient. The division helped almost 300,000 Alaskans last year, and she thinks she can do the same workload with only three-quarters of her old workforce.

Asked whether that gain in efficiency comes from telework or a recently completed database revision, she said, “I would say, you know, I think teleworking is going to be kind of the means for making all these other things happen.”

Alaska’s two largest public-employee unions are noncommittal so far about telework. Their directors say employees generally like working from home, but the unions themselves are worried about the long-term consequences.

“One of the fears that we have is that telework allows for the employment to go outside of the state because it’s all electronic,” said Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association, the largest union for state employees.

When the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services began hiring people to trace the spread of COVID-19, it contracted with a firm called Rose International.

“We’re still learning about what exactly has happened. But we understand that those employees are not necessarily going to be Alaskan,” Metcalfe said.

Crum said Rose International only started work in November, but when it begins hiring, it will hire Alaskans first.

Metcalfe said his union isn’t opposed to teleworking. It has supported the practice as a safe alternative to office work during the pandemic.

“But if the jobs are going to be Mexico, or to Alabama, or India, that’s not work Alaskans are doing,” he said.