Union Files For Arbitration Over State Office Space

The state’s largest public employee union and the Parnell administration will enter into arbitration over the issue of office space.

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An arbitrator has been selected, but the time frame for the negotiations are still unknown.

Arbitration depends on the availability of the state, the union, and the person selected to settle the dispute. The state says that may not be until August 2014.

Photo courtesy of KTOO.
Photo courtesy of KTOO.

Alaska State Employees Union Executive director Jim Duncan says that’s not acceptable.

“Members have a right to have their issues heard in a timely manner and a year from now is not timely,” he said. “And meanwhile, during that period of time, we will have members who’ll continue to be negatively impacted by the issue that we are in arbitration about.”

The union filed a class action grievance in July because it believes the state’s office standards drastically change the work environment. Duncan says the state failed to negotiate with the union prior to implementing the standards, which violates the collective bargaining agreement.

Deputy administration commissioner Curtis Thayer says the state has had space standards for at least 33 years.

“They’re never bargained them with the union. Management has always had the right to establish the space and the desk and the working environment,” he says.

Duncan says putting more employees into a smaller number of floors poses safety and health concerns in regards to the number of fire exits and restrooms. The number of those isn’t increasing. Privacy is also a concern.

“We have members who deal with a lot of issues that are confidential in nature, protected issues under federal law,” explains Duncan. “The clientele they serve needs to know their conversations are being held in private.”

The state’s office standards include private telephone booths, conference rooms, and other features that Thayer believes improve the work environment.

“We’re giving them ergonomically correct furniture; we’re giving them right to light,” Thayer said. “They’re getting new break rooms and dishwashers and microwaves and coffee pots that they never had before and the employees are thanking us for it.”

Duncan says the state is painting a picture that employees are happy with the new office space.

“That’s entirely false. I am getting emails constantly,” Duncan said. “We are getting many more members attending our work site meeting than we’ve ever had on this topic.”

“There is more interest in this; there is more opposition to this; there is more concern on this issue from our members than any other issue that we’ve been addressing in recent times.”

Deputy Commissioner Thayer doesn’t know what the union wants out of the arbitration. He says employees are already in the new cubicles.

“We can’t put them back into the old stuff. It’s not here anymore,” Thayer said. “The old break rooms are already triple the size they used to be. We’re not going to return the new refrigerator and the dishwasher to the local appliance store.”

“So that’s one of the things that I’m trying to understand is what do they want?”

Duncan says the union continues to ask the state for the same thing.

“Before they proceed, they have to sit down and negotiate those changes with the union and get our involvement. That would mean that they wouldn’t proceed until have an agreement,” Duncan said. “By delaying the arbitration until August of next year, it’s working in their benefit. They’re going to continue to install the cubicles and it’s going to continue to have a negative impact on our membership.”

According to Thayer, the Division of Insurance on the 15th floor of the Robert Atwood Building in Anchorage is up next for a space renovation. He says the division asked for it.

Lisa Phu is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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