Art Chance: The 15% raises for all State attorneys

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By ART CHANCE

Alaska’s Constitution mandates a “merit system of employment.” At its essence that means that to get a State job you get hired based on your qualifications rather than your connections. Merit system employees are the majority of Executive Branch employees, but they are not a majority of State employees by any means.

The State workforce is composed of three services: the classified service, the partially exempt service, and the exempt service. The classified service are true “merit system” employees who have to be hired into a specified job classification which establishes minimum qualifications for the job and the candidate must be competitively selected. The 14 departments of State government have about 17,000 employees, about 15,000 of which are in the classified service.

These employees are subject to the provisions of the State Personnel Act (AS 39.25 et seq.) and may appeal discipline or dismissal or actions that violate the State Personnel Act to the State Personnel Board, though this appeal process is almost never used, since almost all classified employees are unionized and their conditions of employment are  established by collective bargaining.   

The partially exempt service is the smallest group of State employees, a couple of thousand, are about as close to true “serve at the pleasure” or “at will” political appointees as the State has. These employees are division directors, some deputy directors and other specialized employees who know how to work the system, all of the assistant attorneys general, and those in the assistant commissioner classification. Deputy commissioner is a statutory designation in the exempt service with a statutorily set salary and depending on the size of the department and horsepower of the commissioner a department has one or two. 

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, ambitious division directors prevailed upon the director of personnel to create the classification of “assistant commissioner” in the partially exempt service. This allows an assistant commissioner to keep his/her merit/longevity steps earned in the classified and partially exempt service rather than accept the deputy commissioner salary set by the Legislature. That’s called working the system.

Partially exempt employees must have a job classification set out in the State Classification Plan and must meet the minimum qualifications of that classification and must be paid from the statutory State Pay Plan at the range set out in the Classification Plan. They do not have to be hired competitively and rarely are, none are unionized, though they could be, and they cannot appeal discipline or dismissal to the State Personnel Board. They can and often do sue the State for wrongful discharge if they get fired, especially if they’re Democrats being fired by a new Republican governor or commissioner. Alaska’s leftist judiciary is more than happy to order them put back to work and paid a lot of money.

The rest of the people who draw a State paycheck, almost half the total workforce are in the exempt service. Nominally, a position is placed in the exempt service because it isn’t susceptible to the State’s ordinary pay and selection processes. One of the first drivers of the exempt designation was the ferry system. Alaska basically imported the Washington ferry system and its unions to operate the aborning State ferry system. 

The Washington unions wanted nothing to do with merit system hiring and bureaucratic pay plans so ferry system employees were made exempt from the State Personnel act and its accoutrement. Teachers also thought they were special, so they were made exempt. At that time the State operated the state-operated school system, which was composed of the old BIA schools the State had taken over.

Subsequently, various job classifications were placed in the exempt service since their wage and benefit structure couldn’t be accommodated under the statutory scheme. And, of course, Alaska being as it is, people with friends in high places managed to get the job they coveted placed in the exempt service so they could slip the surly bonds of the State Pay Plan and union contracts.

Then the State created all sorts of quasi-governmental entities that didn’t want to be burdened by the strictures of the State Personnel Act and certainly didn’t want to be limited by the State Pay Plan. If you work for a quasi or a board or commission, you get paid what the Board wants to give you. I think some of the Alaska Housing Authority is still union, but other than that none of the quasis are union, so they pretty much do as they please as long as they don’t have to beg the Legislature for much money.

So, that is the way the State is supposed to work, and the way it kinda’, sorta’ works, though how and why things are done are somewhere between a vague memory and a suggestion. The State Personnel Rules, the regulations implementing the State Personnel Act, were rescinded pending revision back in the 1990s and have never been re-issued. The State runs on the “this is what we’ve always done” system and as often as not what we’ve always done is wrong.

I spent most of my career as either a non-union classified employee or as a partially exempt political appointee. The Knowles Administration threatened to fire us all and replace us with people acceptable to the unions, so we unionized and told them to let us know how that turned out. That lasted two or three years for me but after I became an appointee, I was never able to get my subordinates out of the union even though they wanted to be out.

So, that is a lot of background about how the State workforce is organized; probably more than you wanted but you need to know at least the broad strokes and bright colors.

Non-union employees in the classified and partially-exempt services of State government didn’t have a union rep or lobbyist picking up the tab at the Bubble Room and making sure the State Pay Plan kept up with the union contracts. We carried the spear for the State on a lot of issues and our reward was that we got paid the equivalent of a State range or more less than a union employee in the same range.   A State range is about 7.5%.  I could take comfort in the knowledge that when I walked into a room to represent the Administration, I was likely the lowest paid person in the room.

The Legislature just passed a bill (HB 226) giving all exempt and partially exempt employees paid from the State Pay Plan a 5% general increase. They haven’t had a general increase since 2015 but most of them have been getting either merit or longevity steps of around 3% every year or two, so don’t feel too sorry for them.   

That said, I’m not really much troubled by it because the Legislature finds non-union employees easy to ignore; they’ll whore for the unions and decide to save money by not giving the same increase to the non-union employees. It can make you cranky.

They’re also giving a 15% general  increase to all the State attorneys. I’m a little troubled with that. Now, true confessions for those who don’t know me well, I’m not much on State lawyers and the Department of Law. There are basically three kinds of State lawyers: those who would starve to death in private practice, those who are decent lawyers but are more political activist than lawyer, and decent lawyers who will accept less money than they could make in private practice for the more regular hours and workload that the State offers. If you’re hiring you look for the latter group.

Membership in the attorney club starts at State Range 17, and that is essentially a paraprofessional job. I got that sort of work done at range 13 or 14 and I didn’t require a law degree. I also had my higher level advocates do a lot of that sort of work themselves and carry their own briefcases. So I don’t know if Law is looking to develop higher level lawyers or just are being snobby and want their briefcase toters to have law degrees.

My journeyman level position was a labor relations specialist II at SR 20, the same range as an attorney II and with similar duties. I didn’t require bar admission but neither does Law, though an attorney II would have to be a member of the Bar Association to appear in court. It took a lot of on the job training because they don’t come out of law school with much in the way of advocacy skills.

I lost a couple of new ones because they simply couldn’t handle the stress of advocacy. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep any of the attorneys long because Law could pay more. I got the work out of them that I could and let them go to Law for a raise. I topped out at SR 21 and Law could go to SR 25.

I don’t think that Law needs that 15% general increase because the money isn’t the root issue. The root issue is living and working in Juneau, Fairbanks, or one of the regional hubs. Maybe money will make that more attractive, but not for long. These employees are going to be young, looking for an active social life, and they are deeply in debt.

We used to have end of the day “after action analysis” meetings at local watering holes, and I knew who was going to pick up the tab because most of my staff was eating top ramen so they could pay their student loans. Some sort of student loan repayment scheme might be more effective than a general increase. That said, whether you’re talking State Troopers or young lawyers, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Barrow et al. are not desirable duty stations except for a very special sort of employee.

I think if I were trying to solve a recruitment and retention problem with lawyers, I’d be looking at the same sort of things we looked at with Troopers back in the 1980s: Make sure they knew they were going to get experience that they couldn’t get anywhere else, were going to be paid very well, and weren’t going to have to do it very long.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 

18 COMMENTS

  1. This article is interesting and intriguing. I know of no other source whereby the information would be laid out in this clear manner. Even though we should all have this knowledge, somehow it fails to uplift my spirit.

  2. Alaska has a caste system more rigid than India.

    Legislators, unionized state workers, us.

  3. Art, do these lawyers who are assigned to more remote areas also get a COLA? Could you also comment/write an article on the impact of SCOTUS’ Janus decision on any and all state/local government employees. Why has that not had an impact in Alaska? Thanks

    • Remote areas get “geographic differential” based on a magical combination of cost of living and politics. Base is Anchorage and some places have a 40% or more differential, e.g., Bethel, Kotz, etc. Even JNU has a +5% differential, though anyone with a brain knows that 25% is closer to the true differential from Anchorage.

      Juneau has always resisted a true geo dif because if the actual cost difference between the Railbelt and Juneau were reflected you could justify moving any position out of Juneau for purely economic reasons. I know that had I moved my division to Anchorage it would have been about a 25% pay raise for me and my staff and would have saved the State hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in travel costs. But, I had to be where the Commissioner of Administration, the Governor, OMB, and the Legislature were.

      Anyway, 40% differential in Bethel, Nome, or Kotz won’t help long when there is nothing to do and nothing to buy for a young professional. Back in the days when a Bush geo dif would jack up your retirement high three, guys would suck it up, chance the divorce, and take a remote assignment to top off their career. That doesn’t make any difference anymore and doesn’t mean anything to a twenty-something lawyer in the making who while s/he, mostly he, is building a resume sometimes feels the need to carve a notch in the bedpost, and the social life is very limited.

      One of the first Trooper grievances I ever worked on was a junior Trooper wanting to be transferred out of Cordova because there were no suitable women there, and you can do a lot worse than Cordova for a duty station.

      • This an insult to Alaska Native women well received by everyone else. Tired of being understanding.

  4. “………The root issue is living and working in Juneau, Fairbanks, or one of the regional hubs. Maybe money will make that more attractive, but not for long. These employees are going to be young, looking for an active social life, and they are deeply in debt……….”
    Wouldn’t a regional per diem bonus like what the feds pay for less attractive duty stations help solve that problem? The per diem rate could be flexible based upon the region’s desirability.

  5. Hey Art can you shed some light on just what we pay a Legislators after they are vested, seems like a vary easy way to retire,. Thanks for your posts vary informative

    • They’re in PERS, which vests at five years. I don’t think their per diem counts as PERS earnings. If they entered a PERS job after July 1,2006, they’re in the defined contribution Tier IV plan. Otherwise their PERS tier is predicated on their date of entry. Most are Tier IV but some have been around either the Legislature or some other State or Polisub position(s) long enough to be PERS Tier II or III, the defined benefit tiers. I don’t think any have been around long enough to be Tier I, which would require a hire date prior to July 1, 1986 No active employee is in the old EPORS system specific to elected and appointed officials which was repealed back in the late 70s or early 80s, but there are still a few EPORS beneficiaries among us; I know a couple. It was such a sweet ride that it was repealed by citizens’ initiative.

  6. Interesting article. Art discusses merits system. Application of merit principles is very hazy when it comes to lawyers working for the State of Alaska. A number of lawyers who have gotten croaked during litigation stay on the payroll regardless of results and outcomes. Good work, I suppose, if you can get and keep it but how does the public benefit. y
    Oh well ……………………………….

      • Wayne Douglas Coogan, what would be the equivalent for a Ferry Worker getting “croaked” per Mr. Geldhof’s comment? Running the ship up on the rocks?

    • My enmity towards the Department of Law is pretty well known on these pages. I’ve had some damned good cases inexplicitly lost as they went through the Court system. I can think of a couple that I would have fired anybody who worked for me over.

  7. Anybody that does work for an attorney should charge them like they charge us hundreds of dollars an hour.

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