By ART CHANCE
I read with interest the MRAK story about Superior Court Judge Matthews siding with the State in denying the Alaska State Employees’ Association’s motion to basically shut down State government and let ASEA members “work” from home.
ASEA represents the General Government Bargaining Unit (GGU) of State employees. Technically they are defined as “classified, non-supervisory employees.”
There are 8,000 or so of them; they are by far the largest unit of State employees. The reality is that they really are the unit of State employees who couldn’t get themselves put in another unit.
The law says that bargaining units are to be defined by “community of interest” and unnecessary fragmentation is to be avoided (AS 23.40.090).
Yet, bargaining unit determinations have always been sloppy and political and the GGU is no exception. They try to represent employees with general equivalency diplomas who work in entry- level jobs as well as people with PhDs making over $100,000 a year.
One of their national representatives lamented to me back in the 1990s that it was “hard to find a sense of social justice in engineers making over $50,000 a year.” That salary would buy you a couple of decent pick-ups back then.
Leaving aside the ferry system unions and their unique obstinacy, if you’re going to have labor problems in the State workforce, they’re likely to start in the GGU/ASEA.
ASEA is an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (AFSCME). ASEA was also the first of the State’s white and gray collar units to affiliate with an AFL-CIO union, and when AFSCME came to Alaska in 1988, they brought Saul Alinsky with them.
By the early Nineties, those leather-bound hornbooks and treatises in my office were gathering dust and had been replaced by well-thumbed copies of Alinsky’s “Rules For Radicals.”
ASEA couldn’t do labor relations very well, but they sure knew how to make noise and raise hell. Being soundly thrashed by the State on numerous occasions has made them somewhat more circumspect, but even today, if there is going to be labor strife, it is likely to start with ASEA.
There is a plaintive wail in the comments to the MRAK story from a commenter claiming to be a conservative Republican and Dunleavy supporter going on about how unfair the State’s position on working at home is. For a conservative Republican and Dunleavy supporter, the commenter sounds amazingly like an ASEA shop steward parroting the party line.
The State has never embraced telecommuting, and especially not for the sort of employees ASEA represents. Most ASEA members are direct service employees; they provide direct services to citizens at front desks or at Division of Motor Vehicles, Department of Health and Social Services, or support professionals who provide direct services. Some, but only a minority, are degreed professionals who don’t have supervisory duties.
Professionals who don’t have supervisory duties can telecommute if they’re trust-worthy, high-performing employees, and even with those, you make them clock in and clock out and watch their work production.
It is an enormous liability for the State to let an employee work at home. If you are “at work,” the State has the same liabilities for your health and safety in your home as it does in a State office and it has little control over the health and safety conditions in your home.
If I work at all, I work from home, and my wife telecommutes under federal rules. Our home office is actually better equipped than the typical government office, but it isn’t ADA compliant and would never withstand a Division of Occupational Safety and Health inspection.
Were I working for the State and got up from my desk to go to the restroom, there is an unsecured throw rug over fairly slick ceramic tile, a cord under the throw rug that runs the recliners and another cord in front of the bathroom door that goes to a surround-sound speaker and that I’ve been too lazy to get behind a cover on the wall. Should I slip or trip during that 10-foot distance to the bathroom, my injuries are the State’s liability.
If I’m a State employee working at home, I’m working on my home computer and a home network. If the State insists on a specific security protocol, it has to provide it and require me to use it.
But how does that work out if your teenage son also uses the same network? I’m not the only one who has had to clean up a teenage boy’s virus-infected computer. You don’t want to try to convince his mother that her son, not you, downloaded that stuff.
State management is the same way.
The State has a somewhat objective definition of an “essential employee,” one whose services cannot be done without for the shortest period of time. That definition is from the Public Employment Relations Act and defines those employees who are prohibited from striking because the strike would pose a threat to public health and safety.
As I discussed above regarding bargaining unit definitions, the application of the law has been both sloppy and political, but at least it is a written definition that can be objectively contested.
However, using the strike class definition doesn’t really answer the question in ASEA’s suit. ASEA does have employees that are prohibited from striking, such as Alaska Psychiatric Institute and Pioneer Home employees and some administrative workers in Corrections and Public Safety, but the real issue is with the employees at the Department of Health and Social Services — the ones who take welfare applications, or Labor and Workforce Development workers who take unemployment insurance applications, and other direct service and front desk employees.
The State should make the determination based on the function, not the employee. The State can say that there will be no driver’s license renewals or registration renewals for 30 days and no enforcement for expired licenses and registrations.
Then, it can just lay off the employees associated with that function. The unions have never meaningfully cooperated with furlough arrangements so it’s best to just lay them off, pay them off, and maybe call them back if you ever need them again; you reap what you sow.
Layoff is expensive; you have to pay off the laid-off employees’ benefits, but the unions bought a Legislature and got the State’s personal services budget fully funded; it doesn’t cost any more to get rid of them that it does to keep them. Be careful what you ask for.
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.