Evolving COVID policies for state, Anchorage workforces leave public employees anxious

The Robert B. Atwood building and neighbors in downtown Anchorage.
The Robert B. Atwood Building, center, is the state’s main office building in Anchorage. City Hall is at the far left corner of the photo. (AKPM staff)

As a super-contagious strain of the coronavirus sweeps across America, there are no mask or vaccine requirements for state and Anchorage city workers.

That’s left an evolving patchwork of policies that public employees are unsure will leave them protected, with some increasingly nervous and scared as the new strain of the virus, delta, threatens even vaccinated Alaskans, according to interviews with union officials.

“It’s just a lot of people getting sick, and a lot of people having to deal with the fear of getting sick,” said Jake Metcalfe, executive director of the 8,000-member Alaska State Employees Association. “So, that’s got a lot of our members really anxious.”

Metcalfe said he’s been hearing about a lot of workplace problems from his members in recent days. At the Pioneer Home in Fairbanks, there’s a COVID outbreak, and Metcalfe said members are uncomfortable about being asked to reuse their N95 masks.

Related: As state health officials outline plan to help overloaded hospitals, Dunleavy asks Alaskans to consider the vaccine

In Juneau, he’s heard complaints about inadequate mask-wearing — including from one state worker who got into an elevator in the State Office Building and discovered they were the only one wearing a face covering.

The state employs some 15,000 people, and GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declined to require them to wear masks at work.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy answers questions at a news conference last week. (Matthew Faubion / Alaska Public Media)

Among Metcalfe’s members, he said, some are worried about catching the virus and bringing it home to their unvaccinated kids. Others are concerned about working with unmasked colleagues in confined spaces.

The central problem, he said, is not enough communication about what the administration is doing to keep workers safe — particularly because of the contagiousness of the delta variant.

“People feel like it’s an emergency. And until there’s some sort of communication that we’re going to have a safe workplace, that we’re going to do things to make sure that it’s safe, I don’t see that anxiety decreasing at all,” Metcalfe said.

Five Democratic state representatives last week wrote to Dunleavy asking him to reimplement a mask requirement in state workplaces. They also asked him to work with unions to create vaccine incentives for public employees, calling those policies “extremely urgent” given the spread of the delta variant.

But at a news conference Thursday, Dunleavy still ruled out a mask mandate, and suggested that state workers could protect themselves through voluntary masking and vaccination.

“I would ask that people not be fearful, but have a conversation with their doc to figure out, really, what’s the best way to approach this virus,” he said.

Those still worried about getting a breakthrough case of the virus and bringing it home to unvaccinated family members can seek accommodations for special circumstances from their supervisors, Dunleavy added.

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Metcalfe, the union representative, said some state employees have jobs they can’t do from home, like those who work at Pioneer Homes and youth centers. He also said it’s not clear how much supervisors are making accommodations for workers who want them — particularly after lawmakers allowed the expiration of a state-level emergency declaration, which had the effect of shifting more employees back to in-person work.

In Anchorage, meanwhile, police union officials say members haven’t made specific complaints about working conditions under new Mayor Dave Bronson.

But they note that a newly updated department policy allows unvaccinated officers to keep working even if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 — a departure from guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson shakes hands with Gerard Asselin, after announcing that he had appointed Asselin as deputy chief of the police department. (Nat Herz/Alaska Public Media)

The policy only allows officers to stay at work, rather than quarantine at home, if they wear an N95 mask at all times and social distance when possible, said Deputy Chief Gerard Asselin.

The department also has been tracking its officers exposed to COVID-19 and found that it’s extremely rare that they end up infected with the virus, he said, adding that employees’ interactions with the public are typically brief.

“You take that limited window, and then you couple it with the idea that they are also going to be wearing an N95 during that time, the risk of exposure to others is minuscule,” Asselin said in a brief phone interview. “We’re constantly balancing the risk associated with this entire situation: the agency, the employees and of course, the citizens — and all of those things taken as a whole lead us to believe this is a responsible way to approach it for everybody involved.”

It’s too early to characterize officers’ comfort with the new guidelines, and it will likely depend on where they fall on the “coronavirus debate,” said Jeremy Conkling, the president of Anchorage’s police union.

Related: Anchorage Mayor Bronson says he won’t push masks or vaccines, hires new top doc

The policy, Conkling said, does solve a problem for the union, which had previously been pushing the department to provide paid leave for unvaccinated officers who are exposed to COVID-19 on the job. But he said he also understands if it prompts concerns.

“Of all the things that people are dealing with when they have to call the police, the last thing that they want to be thinking about or should be thinking about is that the police are going to give them a communicable disease,” Conkling said.

Unlike in some other cities, vaccine requirements for Anchorage workers are not on the horizon any time soon, as Bronson, the mayor, continues to say he will not push the shots. Dunleavy’s position is the same.

The Anchorage police department isn’t tracking its vaccination rates, Asselin said, though firefighter union officials say that department’s rate is above 85%.

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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