State employee contracts touted

Posted: Thursday, April 06, 2000

Bob Poe is out to tear down people's stereotypes.

The stereotypes center around the view of state employees as overpaid, inefficient bureaucrats. The state Department of Administration commissioner is fighting them because he needs support for new three-year contracts with the 12 unions representing state workers before the contracts are scheduled to take effect July 1.

Addressing the Kenai Chamber of Commerce's weekly luncheon Wednesday, Poe said in the past seven years, the state work force has received no real increases in salaries.

According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, overall, industries have increased their work forces almost 4.5 percent between 1997 and 1998. Those workers have seen their earnings increase more than 2 percent.

The same study showed the number of state employees increased 0.8 percent and their earnings went up 0.6 percent.

Poe also said the myth of above-average state benefits is untrue.

"The benefits are very much on par with what most people get," he said.

Poe said the administration's push to improve compensation of state workers will benefit the business community as well.

"They represent a very important multiplier effect," Poe said of the Kenai Peninsula's 1,041 state employees.

Poe added that those employees earn a combined $38 million, which adds $68 million to the local economy.

Therefore, the commissioner said, it is in businesses' interest to help do what the state hasn't been able to by itself -- keep skilled workers in Alaska.

"They don't view Alaska as a future," he said, adding that the real trouble is in retaining workers with experience. "That's where the brain drain occurs. We're a great place to start out, but we're not a great place to stay.

"If you don't have those good state employees, you don't have a lot of business."

Poe said the state is unable to compete with other industries, both in and out of state, for many positions, especially accounting, engineering and information technology.

"If you look at the employers we compete against," he said, "we're no longer competitive."

Poe recounted recent hiring troubles at the Department of Transportation.

DOT, he said, needed 79 engineers to prepare projects for bidding using money Sen. Ted Stevens gathered from the federal government. Of those positions, 49 went unfilled, causing dozens of delays, including the paving project for Forest Drive in Kenai.

To prevent more slowdowns and even stoppages, Poe said, the state needs to be a competitive employer with something to offer employees.

"If you've got a reason to leave Alaska with those skills, you can double your salary in a minute," he said. "All we can say is 'Isn't Alaska beautiful? Don't you love catching those fish?'

"It's not viewed as a real good opportunity."

Right now, Poe said, the contracts are waiting for the approval of the Legislature.

"We're trying to get the Legislature to deal with the labor contracts during the regular session," he said. "The Legislature is paying an attorney ... to analyze those contracts."

Poe said many legislators are leery of taking up the cause of expensive new contracts during an election year.

"They know how hard it is to find fat. There is no fat anymore," he said. "They believe they won't get re-elected."

Poe said people need to contact their legislators and encourage them to support the new contracts.

"The main thing (people) can do is talk to their legislators and tell them it's OK," he said.

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