Military members’ survey responses could protect Alaska cost of living allowances

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson
Fighter, support and transport aircraft assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson fill a runway during a 2020 “elephant walk” demonstration. (From Staff Sgt. Curt Beach/U.S. Air Force)

Alaska military leaders are encouraging service members based in the state to fill out a survey that will show how a recent cut in overseas cost-of-living allowances has reduced their purchasing power, especially for costly winter gear like parkas and snow tires.

The effort to encourage Alaska service members to list the all the expensive items needed to live in the state comes in response to the Pentagon’s reduction last month of its Overseas Cost of Living Allowance, or OCOLA.

Air Force Maj. Jhannelle Haag, a spokesperson for Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, listed a few Alaska staples arriving families will likely have to buy.

We’re talking about coats, jackets, gloves, snow tires — things that are really Alaska-specific,” she said.

a graphic
A graphic posted to the JBER Facebook page lists examples of higher costs paid by service members stationed in Alaska, compared to a staff sergeant’s monthly pay and cost of living allowance. (Courtesy Facebook)

For military personnel in Alaska with kids, Haag said, many of those are recurring purchases.

“If you have a young family and every single year, they’re getting a little bit older, they’re going to need to change those out,” she said.

The reduction in the overseas COLA amounts to a cut in take-home pay of thousands of dollars annually for senior officers and non-commissioned officers, and hundreds of dollars a year for lower-ranking personnel.

JBER Airman First Class Dustin Smyth said the cuts will make it tougher for him and his wife to keep up with expenses.

“I use most of my OCOLA on diapers and baby formula for my child,” he said.

As a firefighter, Smyth works irregular shifts. That unpredictability keeps his wife from working, so the family only has one income.

“I work 48-hour shifts, so I’m gone for two days at a time and I get back and I’m off for two days,” he said. “So she really can’t get any work because we have no childcare.”

Haag said that’s why military leaders want to get as many service members as possible to take the survey and list those kinds of expenses. Army and Air Force commanders hope the responses will show how the cuts are making it harder for personnel to buy such necessities.

“We want to make sure that members have an opportunity to identify those items and communicate that ‘Hey, this is kind of a unique expense that we have here in Alaska, that maybe not necessarily in other locations they have to purchase,’” Haag said.

The so-called Living Pattern Survey is conducted every three years, to track the cost of living for service members stationed outside of the continental United States — which for military purposes, includes Alaska. The Defense Department uses the survey and other data points to set the OCOLA and adjust it periodically, in an effort to give overseas service members as much buying power as their counterparts assigned to installations in the Lower 48.

“The survey is applicable to all active-duty U.S. armed forces members, including all (Department of Defense) branches, and it does apply to the Coast Guard as well,” she said.

Haag said the OCOLA cuts for service members assigned to other Alaska installations like Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright were twice as deep as those for JBER’s personnel. She said the reductions weren’t caused by goods and services in Alaska costing less, but rather because inflation has pushed Lower 48 prices higher more quickly than they’re rising here.

“Essentially, inflation is catching up to the prices that we’re seeing here,” she said. “So, obviously, if items are costing more down there, then they’re catching up to us here.”

Smyth said that whatever the reason, the cuts are hurting military personnel. So, he said, it’s important for them to let the Pentagon know that Alaska is still a very expensive place to live.

“I just hope everyone does this OCOLA survey, so we can get that COLA back up,” he said. “And everyone’s got enough money to do things that they actually have to do — child care, taking care of their family, gas money, just everyday needs.”

Service members have until the end of the month to submit the survey.

Editor’s note: To find out more about the Living Pattern Survey and to participate in it, click here.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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