Outrage grows that many Alaska state workers can’t heed the call to stay home

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a March 9 briefing on the coronavirus. (Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has closed certain businesses and is urging Alaskans to stay home to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But some state employees still have to report to their offices, and outrage is percolating.

Dunleavy said some jobs, like policing and fire-fighting and essential office jobs, can’t be done from home.

“If we could send everybody home in state and municipal government and we thought that our governments could function – our society could function, our civilization could function – if we did that, we’d certainly do that,” Dunleavy said Monday. “But we know it can’t.”

Cynthia Franklin (Law Office of Bradly A. Carlson)

That characterization of who still has to report for work has annoyed and infuriated state workers and their friends. They say state workers are forced to violate orders the governor and other political leaders are imposing on other Alaskans to keep Alaskans safe: Avoid gatherings of 10 or more. Stay six feet from anyone not in your family. Stay home.

And, they say, making them report to the office now is not just risky, but, in some cases, pointless.

“If you go in and you really look at the employees working and what they’re doing, the ones that I’m aware of, are not troopers and police officers. They’re not what the governor is representing,” said attorney Cynthia Franklin.

Franklin, who directed the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office during part of the Walker administration, has friends in two state office buildings: The Brady and the Atwood, in downtown Anchorage. She said the state workers she knows, including staffers in the civil division of the Department of Law, worry about their exposure.

“The governor talks out of one side of his mouth for everyone else in the state and then for his own employees,” she said. “He allows decisions to be made that are inconsistent with one another, and inconsistent with the state workers safety and health.”

Related: Alaska leaders have taken drastic measures to slow the coronavirus. The ‘$1 million question’ is whether they’re enough.

She said she’s particularly concerned for the office assistants, whose desks tend to be closer together and who are often not in a position to object.

“What essentially happens is the support staff, the lowest paid employees who can least afford to lose their jobs, are asked to work in the tightest physical environments,” she said.

Dunleavy said employees are working at home if they can.

“They’re having a conversation with their supervisors, and for those folks that can work at home, that’s happening,” he said Tuesday evening.

He was more definitive when it came to the general public, urging that all Alaskans keep their distance.

“You’ve got to stay away from others,” he pleaded. “Two weeks is what we’re asking. We believe that in this two-week period we can do so much to combat this virus.”

But several state employees have contacted Alaska Public Media to say their safety does not seem to be a top priority, and they’re afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up publicly.

One said she is part of a support staff for a program that has all but stopped, but she and her coworkers were required to show up anyway. Another said his office is open to the public, with two bottles of expired hand sanitizer for visitors and none for staff. He shared a message from a supervisor warning employees not to appeal to the commissioner. He also said his colleagues are sent on tasks that may increase everyone’s exposure, like waiting in line at the post office, and then distributing mail from office to office.

Read more of Alaska Public Media’s coronavirus coverage

The Alaska State Employees Association is filing a restraining order, asking a judge to force the state to allow more teleworking, stagger shifts, reconfigure workspaces and provide safety equipment. The union represents 8,000 state employees, including office workers, probation officers and nurses at state institutions.

“I can’t count the number of emails that I’ve gotten from people that are concerned that they either can’t get approval to telework, or they’re not sure their workplace is safe,” said ASEA executive director Jake Metcalfe. “And they’re stressed out and their anxiety level is off the charts about this.”

It’s not clear how many state employees are still required to report to their duty stations. The governor said Monday he didn’t know. On Tuesday, his spokesman referred the question to the Department of Administration, which has not responded.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.