The impacts of job vacancies in the state trickle down to Alaska, from a shortage of plow operators to a stranded ferry

JUNEAU – At the end of November, Ash Hartzell, a resident of Juneau, was among dozens of drivers faced with a sheet of ice covering the bridge between downtown Juneau and Douglas Island.

Hartzell, seated in the passenger seat of the family truck, was a captive audience as the truck’s tires slid across the ice, carrying her and her husband over a nearby roundabout.

“The impact hurt physically, but we were both fine. Maybe a little shaken up, ”she said. Ice “definitely seemed like a problem that should have been addressed immediately.”

Similar scenarios have occurred across Alaska this winter, as large parts of the state experience heavier-than-normal snowfall and the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities grapples with a shortage of plow operators.

Other state departments say services provided to Alaskans are suffering because of the vacancies. And although the figures provided by the state after an application for public registration do not show a significant difference between the number of state employees in all departments compared to the same period a year ago, vacancies are wreaking havoc.

The problems were particularly acute at DOT, and particularly among the snow clearing crews. In Juneau, the conditions Hartzell experienced was directly attributable to a staff shortage that left fewer people to drive the plows that clear the bridge.

“In Juneau in particular, we lost three positions out of a total of 14, so we lost over 20%,” said Sam Dapcevich, spokesman for DOT on the Alaska Coast.

In Fairbanks, which has been hit by a series of winter storms, the state’s highway maintenance crew has 10 open positions. This is over 300% of the expected vacancy rate, as judged by the State Budget and Management Office.

To help deal with the storms, the state called in workers on leave and transferred some of them to other assignments, such as cleaning up the Dalton Freeway, which leads to Prudhoe Bay.

In Homer, only three of the seven plow operators were available during a November storm, DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy said. In Valdez, the vacancy rate is also around 20%. But in Anchorage, Mat-Su and western Alaska, the number of vacancies is not exceptionally high, she said earlier this month.

DOT is also struggling to fill other positions. The Alaska Marine Highway System’s Tazlina ferry was docked at a dock in Juneau due to understaffing, and with other ferries suffering from mechanical issues, the state is rushing to crew and make it work.

“It is important to share that AMHS staff shortages have never been greater than they are now,” DOT Deputy Commissioner Rob Carpenter wrote this week in a letter to the mayors of Haines. and Skagway.

Shannon Adamson, the local boss of the union representing ferry bridge officers, said there was a shortage of maritime workers nationwide and the state, in some ways, was lucky not to have a lot of ferries in service. If the personnel issues are not resolved by the summer, when more ferries are scheduled, “this is going to be a serious problem,” she said.

At the Bethel courthouse, staff shortages are causing prolonged delays. A challenge to the new political map of Alaska, for example, was not released publicly until four days after it was tabled.

At the Alaska Law Department, staff noted the shortage of lawyers.

“I know having spoken to (the attorney general), it’s quite stressful, and they find it difficult – like all state agencies – to recruit,” said Corri Feige, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, in November.

“It’s a very tight job market,” Marcus Frampton, chief investment officer for Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., said at a board meeting in early December.

The Permanent Fund only had four open positions at the time – which was not unusual – but it was struggling to fill them. (This was before the board fired executive director Angela Rodell.)

“We’re going through the exact same thing all over the state of Alaska,” said Department of Revenue Commissioner Lucinda Mahoney.

In some cases, Mahoney said, a job posting will receive 1,000 views online but only result in three applications.

The state is taking steps to fill vacancies. Alaska State Soldiers and the Alaska Department of Corrections have always had successful recruiting programs, and the Alaska Sea Route System is starting one of its own.

“The AMHS has embarked on an aggressive recruiting effort and recruited an additional 30 unlicensed crew members, but a lot more is needed,” Carpenter told Mayors.

At the law department, spokesman Aaron Sadler said the agency offered flexible start dates, increased promotional opportunities and help with moving costs to attract new lawyers.

“In addition, we are strengthening our Fellowship program, which allows new lawyers to gain the legal experience they need and, hopefully, progress to permanent roles within the department,” he said. he declares.

Statewide, the governor’s chief of staff relaxed the hiring freeze put in place in March 2020. Most of the freeze was lifted in October, but hiring for some non-union jobs still requires special consideration .

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