Dozens of state workers rallied on the Capitol steps in Juneau on Friday to ask the government for better benefits, full staffing and safe working conditions.
The rally was for all of the thousands of state workers in the Alaska State Employees Association/AFSCME Local 52, but its focus was on supporting those at the state’s Division of Public Assistance as they tackle a massive backlog of food stamp applications that has left thousands of Alaskans waiting months for public benefits.
The union criticized the state’s plan to hire contract workers to fix the backlog. The state has blamed it on aging technology and a cyber attack in May of 2021, but employees say chronic understaffing is the cause. At the rally, union members said they also need safer workplaces and for the state to hire permanent Alaska employees — rather than contractors who could be from out of state.
“This has been an ongoing problem with the division,” said Joey Tillson, a Division of Public Assistance worker from Ketchikan who spoke on behalf of union members. “We cannot do a bandaid fix, and we cannot go and temporarily fund the staffing. Alaskans are being harmed by this. Every person that you know and love is somehow affected by public assistance in this state.”
She said the division has had a backlog since she started in 2016, and it’s only gotten worse because there isn’t enough staff. Tillson said she’s had to talk other employees out of quitting because morale is so low in the division.
Freshman Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, said that she watched as division workers asked the Dunleavy administration not to cut jobs when she was a legislative staffer in 2021.
“There were concerns that were raised by legislators, by union members, by folks at DPA and all across the board who were talking about the crisis that could come if you don’t all have the resources that you need,” she said. “And now look what’s happened. We’re in a crisis.”
She warned the crisis could get worse with an onslaught of new applications when Medicaid recertifications come in the spring.
Union director Heidi Drygas called the division’s staffing shortage “dire.” But she said one of the state’s main solutions to the food stamp backlog — hiring contract workers — is a violation of its contract with employees. The union has filed a grievance.
“It’s a blatant violation of our contract. But we made it very clear to the commissioner and the director of personnel and labor relations that we would like to amicably resolve this issue,” she said. “We’re very concerned these will more than likely be out-of-state positions for really good jobs that should remain in state.”
Drygas is also concerned that the Dunleavy administration has ordered division staff to return to offices while they face threats of violence from Alaskans who are frustrated and desperate after months of waiting for benefits. She says security contracts should have been in place first.
“Workers are afraid to return to work,” she said. “And until those safety measures are put in place, we don’t think they should have to.”
Anchorage Democrat Sen. Forrest Dunbar and House Minority Leader Calvin Schrage led the crowd in chants and pledged to support better wages, real pensions and better staffing.
Meanwhile, Tillson said conditions are hard for division workers. She said she appeared before the Legislature last year on behalf of the union to ask them not to cut jobs, but the state defunded more than 100 positions in the division anyway.
But Tillson said she’s heartened by new leadership. Director Deb Etheridge began just weeks ago, and Commissioner Heidi Hedberg has been in her post only a few months.
“I’m willing to give them the opportunity to go forth and help with making the change,” Tillson said. “I’m putting faith in the Legislature this session, now that the information is out there.”