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State workers union wants to head to the bargaining table over COVID working conditions

Seal of the State of Alaska outside the State Office Building in Juneau. (07/29/20).
Seal of the State of Alaska outside the State Office Building in Juneau. (07/29/20).(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 7:57 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Department of Administration has released new guidelines for how state employees can safely return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The largest union representing state workers says communication between the Dunelavy administration and members has been insufficient during the pandemic. It will now file a complaint with the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to try to compel the state to bargain with the union over COVID working conditions.

The seven-page set of guidelines from the state describes mitigation techniques to curb the spread of COVID and says telework should be a priority during the pandemic. “We want to make sure that the employees are educated, we want to make sure we’ve done our health checks,” said Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka.

The State of Alaska has roughly 14,800 executive branch employees. Tshibaka said as of the Fourth of July Weekend, around 6,000 state employees were teleworking.

Some offices are starting to reopen more to in-person work. Paralegals at the Anchorage District Attorney’s Office are being asked to come into the office two days per week.

Maria Bahr, a spokesperson for the Department of Law, wrote by email that paralegals are needed in the office “to meet some of the core missions of the office, specifically getting digital discovery out to defendants and defense attorneys and to help with grand juries that are convening in person.”

One union member who works at the Anchorage office told Jake Metcalfe, the executive director of ASEA/AFSCME Local 52, that she was concerned about returning to work. The member has a seriously immunocompromised daughter and is worried about catching COVID.

She is still required to come in.

Bahr said the Department of Law is “taking significant measures to mitigate health risks to employees.” There is hand sanitizer, social distancing taking place and plexiglass set to be installed for a few areas without cubicle walls.

Metcalfe says he has been frustrated in general by the level of communication from state officials.

Recently a weekly phone call between the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations and the union was stopped by Tshibaka. She said union members were “berating” staff. Metcalfe denied that.

Tshibaka said concerns from union members have recently been answered by long email responses. Metcalfe said that isn’t enough.

Now, Metcalfe wants to formally bargain with the state over how union members work during the pandemic. “We really believe that the workplace is safer when the employee and the employer negotiate over those conditions,” he said.

Discussions can go on but the State of Alaska and the union are not required to go to the bargaining table over working conditions during the pandemic, Tshibaka said. One concern is that state employees could strike if pandemic working conditions were part of a formal bargaining agreement.

Metcalfe told lawmakers that he will now head to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency next week to try to compel the state to bargain with the union. That’s a process that could take months.

In March, ASEA/AFSCME Local 52 sued the state to demand that nonessential employees be able to work remotely during the pandemic. An Anchorage Superior Court Judge declined a request to implement a temporary restraining order that would have kept nonessential workers at home.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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