Employees call for immediate health measures in Alaska state facilities

Published: Mar. 21, 2020 at 1:23 PM AKDT
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Employees are calling on state officials to implement immediate measures to protect the health of state workers in public facilities.

Dawn Bundick is a state employee and president of the Alaska State Employees Association Local 52. She works in the Robert B. Atwood Building in downtown Anchorage with around 1,000 other employees.

“I hear and see the unsettling concerns and fear that is rising up in everyone’s minds and hearts,” Bundick said.

During a Saturday teleconference Bundick and other state employees said their work environments do not exercise proper precautions to prevent viral spread, things like: social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and having readily accessible hand sanitizer.

Bundick is concerned that workers are not receiving consistent direction as to how to operate their offices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some offices have shut down public clients, and are instilling the practice of social distancing, and some offices are allowing employees to work from home when it’s feasible so we can continue to serve our public,” she said. “But the inconsistencies from department to department within our cities is frustrating.”

ASEA represents 8,000 employees across the state. Their members work in the Department of Public Assistance, the Office of Children's Services, Pioneer Homes and other departments providing services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These are all services that we have to have in this state, and the people of Alaska deserve to have,” ASEA Executive Director Jake Metcalfe said. “Our members want to work, and they want to work from home in this situation.”

“So we’re asking the governor allow those that can tele-work to tele-work, and the others that can’t and are in non-essential positions to be allowed to go home on administrative leave,” Metcalfe finished.

Another critical ask is for those essential workers who can't perform their jobs from home to have access to personal protective equipment as well as training on how to use it.

State health officials have said the state’s current supply of personal protective equipment is limited and is being used to protect healthcare providers who are working with COVID-19 patients. However, in a Friday press briefing Dunleavy acknowledged the need for safety for healthcare workers and state employees.

“We must look out for state healthcare providers and state workers as they continue to keep critical services operational,” Dunleavy said. “I am authorizing upwards of $75 million to underwrite emergency healthcare facilities and personal protective equipment.”

Dunleavy announced the Alaska COVID-19 Economic Stabilization Plan, which includes a $1 billion draw from the Earnings Reserve Account to provide economic relief and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.

Included in this plan is $100 million to address the expected increase in the state and the public health workload to combat the virus. According to the governor funds would also be available to retrofit state offices with health safety equipment.

“We need our state workers protected, and safe, and we need them to continue the functions of state government,” Dunleavy said.

This draw from the Earnings Reserve would require approval of the Alaska State Legislature, and some legislative members have expressed doubt that it will pass. However, the Senate has acknowledged it is working to provide relief for Alaskans.

The plead for help from state workers has been addressed by the governor, but a clear concern expressed by ASEA is these measures need to be put in place immediately to prevent exposure.

Late Friday afternoon, the governor's spokesperson emailed a detailed response to ASEA's concerns, on behalf of the Departments of Health and Social Services and Administration:

The Governor’s Office, Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Administration have been in regular contact with our employees since the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19). The State’s goals are to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep our employees safe and healthy, while also continuing to provide as many government services as possible to Alaskans in this time of great need. We are public servants, and we are dedicated to serving our fellow Alaskans. We can provide government services while also protecting our employees. Each office and mission requires an individualized assessment to determine how to most effectively function in this time. Agencies have taken steps to allow social distancing in workplaces, services by appointment only, and significant telecommuting, while still allowing for the agencies to complete their missions. Many employees who work at the Atwood and State Office Buildings are telecommuting, for example. We also have increased janitorial cleaning in buildings where State employees work, and we have been sending out newsletters, e-blasts, and held meetings, teleconferences, and Governor press conferences to keep our employees apprised of the rapidly changing environment in which we now find ourselves. The health, safety, and peace of mind of our employees is of great importance to us. To that end, we sent a policy to all State employees this past week to give 14-days of paid leave for employees who cannot telecommute, but need to quarantine because of travel, COVID-19 exposure, or COVID-19 symptoms (see policy excerpt below). In short, there are several changes and adaptations we are implementing throughout the State government to care for our employees: 1. Initiating telework options for SOA employees on a large scale, recognizing, though that many positions will not be able to telework. For those employees, we are implementing solutions like staggered work schedules to maximize social distancing, installing protective barriers, or distributing personal protective equipment. 2. At the direction of the Governor’s Office, compiling and reviewing continuity of operations plans from all departments. 3. Producing and distributing email advisories, policies and communications (found here) that provide specific direction on topics such as: workplace sanitization, hygiene, and COVID-19 prevention; frequently asked questions about telecommuting; operational and workplace guidance; and COVID-19 resources for state employees. 4. Enhancing sanitation protocols using CDC guidance to clean and disinfect public buildings. 5. Implementing physical barriers to protect state employees who directly interact with the public in restricted areas. The State of Alaska is facing unprecedented health, safety, and economic emergencies. This is a time for all leaders to come together, find solutions and build unity. These directives have been sent out to all employees. They may be helpful: Telecommuting and Workplace Configuration Guidance State agencies, corporations, and departments shall continue to explore and promote all possible options to expand telecommuting for state employees. If a workplace configuration does not allow for employees to be safely distanced from others (about 6 feet or 2 meters), then the employer should work to alter the workplace configuration and schedule, and explore possible telecommuting options so social distancing in the workplace is achieved. Telecommuting-Ineligible Employees State of Alaska employees not eligible for telecommuting because of job function, duty and location include, but are not limited to, roles that are essential to public safety, safety site visits, child welfare, and some people within 24/7 facilities. As necessary to protect employees in these roles, the state will provide employees with the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and training to protect themselves and the public while performing necessary job functions. If the employer has determined there are no telecommuting options for an employee who: (1) falls in the “higher risk” or “medium risk” group as defined under (B) above; (2) has an objective reason to believe they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19; (3) has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19 or (4) displays COVID-19 symptoms, the employee can choose to be released for no longer than fourteen (14) calendar days per self-quarantine event: • with no loss of pay under COVID-19 Leave; • on union bank leave; or • on accrued leave.
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