State weighs effects of rejecting contracts

Posted: Friday, May 05, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- If legislators take the unexpected course and reject proposed state employee contracts, and union members walk off the job, the scramble will be on to decide which workers are essential and can be summoned back to work.

Alaska State Troopers would be on patrol as usual. Corrections officers would continue guarding prisoners. Residents at Pioneers Homes would receive their regular care.

But Department of Administration officials believe ferries would dock, state construction projects would halt and license offices would turn dark, said Alison Elgee, deputy commissioner.

''We don't want to lead you to believe we could carry on business as usual,'' Elgee said. ''We couldn't.''

The Legislature is in special session to consider paying for contracts negotiated this year with 12 employee unions. The contracts offer $1,200 lump-sum payment this year and an increase in the state's health insurance contribution.

Some legislators find that deal too generous but by Friday night the contracts were advancing on the House side.

Ferry unions cannot strike before June 1 and other unions could not walk off the job before July 1.

In a vote last September, members of the largest union, Alaska State Employees Association, authorized a strike if the Legislature rejects paying for the contracts. The union covers 7,100 general government workers, from clerks to doctors.

Don Valesko, business manager for Public Employees Local 71 and its 1,500 state employees, mostly in the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said members would strongly consider a strike.

''They would be very unhappy,'' Valesko said.

State law ranks public employees in three categories.

Class 1 employees may not strike. They include police and fire protection employees, correctional institution employees, and hospital employees. They have the right to binding arbitration if a deadlock is reached in collective bargaining.

Class 2 employees, listed as public utility, snow removal, and sanitation workers, are allowed to strike if mediation fails. However, the state can ask the court to order them back to work for life, health and safety reasons.

Class 3 covers all other public employees. In the eyes of the law, their work stoppages may be sustained for extended periods without serious effects on the public. They may strike after a majority of members vote to do so by secret ballot.

Administration officials said it's unclear who qualifies as a Class 2 employee.

Employees of the Division of Family and Youth Services are not on the list but the state would likely seek a court order sending them back to work if they walked out, Elgee said. If Department of Transportation maintenance employees were needed, for example, to keep the Kodiak airport open, the state would argue that they are Class 2 employees, Elgee said.

If the state experienced a major hazardous waste spill, Department of Environmental Conservation employees probably would come back voluntarily, Elgee said.

Elgee said state workers who remained on the job would rank tasks. Public assistance checks would get mailed and vendors likely would not be paid, Elgee said, even though it costs the state 1.5 percent per month if bills are paid after more than 30 days.

''We would be subject to penalties, but frankly, I don't see how we would pull it off,'' Elgee said. Before bills are paid, a state worker has to certify that a service has been received. Those who certify services probably would be on strike.

Elgee said permitting for natural resource development could stop and parks could close in the height of their seasons. If fish counters are not on the job, regional biologists could shut fish openings sooner.

''They tend to be more conservative, which means they may shut down fisheries more quickly,'' Elgee said.

Elgee said all departments have contingency plans for work stoppages, whether they're from strikes, natural disasters or the Year 2000 scare.

''We have done a lot of work over the years that is quite pertinent,'' Elgee said.

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