Anchorage experiencing shortage of vital service workers

Police, fire and health departments all have worker shortages
Anchorage experiencing shortage of vital service workers
Published: Jun. 7, 2023 at 6:49 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage fire, police, and health departments are all facing critical shortages, which some may say can mean the difference between life and death during an emergency.

An Anchorage Assembly member says the problem lies with the city administration and — due to what they call the toxic environment at City Hall — few people want to work for the City of Anchorage.

As a result, the public suffers.

“I’m concerned about the level of vacancies, surely,” Anchorage Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said.

Perez-Verdia co-chairs the city’s public safety committee. He’s concerned about the recent number of vacancies in the Anchorage police, fire and health departments.

“This administration is creating an environment that people don’t want to work here,” Perez-Verdia said.

Perez-Verdia blames Mayor Dave Bronson. He says the city has become a toxic place to work and word is getting out to potential applicants. Perez-Verdia says that’s something that could create a ripple effect for years to come.

“This is something that we’re going to have to be cleaning up for the next decade,” Perez-Verdia said. “Because we’ve lost people who have worked for this administration and previous administrations for decades. And so we’ve lost so many talented folks that it’s going to be tough to find them to come back.”

“We are hiring for all positions, of course, we would love more police officers,” Senior Patrol Officer Angelina Salvato said.

Salvato says as of April, the Anchorage Police Department was down about 77 officers and support staff — 14% of the total budgeted staff. Salvato says the shortage has been taking a toll on other officers.

“For the officers out there on patrol, when we are shorter they are absolutely going from 911 call to 911 call with very little breaks,” Salvato said. “The stress definitely builds up on our patrol officers.

“Public safety is not at risk because of our shortage — we are still out there answering 911 calls.”

The Anchorage Fire Department is missing about 11% of its full staff. Only 19 positions are unfilled, but another 26 employees are on family or medical leave, according to Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd. Every one of those openings is considered critical.

“Any time we have an actual vacancy, we have to fill those up,” Boyd said. “Those are additional shifts for folks, an additional drain on our staffing as well as our funding.”

Plus, due to employees taking their leave during the coming months, the amount of money spent on overtime is about $1.2 million during the summer months alone.

“Our current staffing level is a minimum staffing level,” Boyd said. “It’s enough to keep firetrucks on the road, things staffed, when we have any vacancies from injuries, illness, long-term leave for family events —those create a deficit in our staffing level.”

The Anchorage Health Department has the most vacancies. As of April of this year, the health department was missing 34.03% of its budgeted staff.

As of now, there are 34 positions open.

“What we’re learning is, is that people are leaving en masse,” Perez-Verdia said. “People are complaining about a toxic environment, and this is not the way that our city should be run.”

“Between 15 to 18 leave per year for retirement, other opportunities in their lives,” Boyd said. “And with our current set, we’re 15 vacancies into June, so it’s more than usual.”

All the departments are actively recruiting. None of the ones reporters spoke with place the blame on the city administration — but Perez-Verdia does. He says the shortage is a direct result of Bronson’s lack of leadership.

The mayoral administration was asked to comment on the situation; Bronson’s office sent the following email response:

“Like all large employers, the Municipality faces challenges in today’s workforce environment. Anchorage is in the middle of a perfect storm. Our city has been losing working age adults for roughly a decade, private sector wages far outpace what the City can offer, and a hot job market in the Lower 48 make it challenging to recruit and retain the best employees. The MOA competes for talent with both the private sector, and other large public sector employers,” the email read.

“To attract and retain the best employees, the MOA provides high quality benefits that include generous PTO packages, parental leave, comprehensive healthcare and insurance, family medical leave, and competitive retirement plans. The Bronson Administration is actively reviewing the suite of benefits provided to employees, and is exploring methods to boost recruitment beyond current methods. Mayor Bronson’s administration has not cut police or fire and instead has supported running two full APD academies per year, and secured a $10 million grant that will add 18 new firefighters to the ranks of AFD. An academy to hire those firefighters has just been announced.”