ANCHORAGE — Alaska labor officials have dropped statewide preferential hiring of residents for public jobs, saying that including larger cities can no longer be justified because they have healthier economies than communities still eligible for employment preference.
Officials said 15 areas still qualify as “zones of underemployment” because their unemployment rates are at least 10 percent higher than the national rate.
Under state law implemented in mid-1980s, those zones qualify for at least 90 percent of state jobs in various trades.
Officials said Alaska historically had a higher unemployment rate than the national rate until several years ago, when its unemployment rate dipped below the national rate. The hiring preference determination is reviewed every two years, but officials said the change took a while because they wanted to make sure the improved rate was not an anomaly.
Based on 2012 unemployment figures, other areas, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula, no longer qualified as underemployment zones when officials were putting together the change implemented Friday, officials said.
“The statistics just weren’t there,” deputy Labor Commissioner Mike Maher said.
The Alaska Democratic Party criticized the change, saying in a statement that “Alaskans will no longer be at the front of the line to apply for public works jobs.”
Party spokesman Zack Fields called the change political. He said the state has long been on shaky legal ground because of the improved economy, but chose to make the changes only now.
“They had the same legal challenge three years ago in justifying Alaska hire,” Fields said. “Somehow, they managed to make it work.”
The effects of the change are likely to have minimal effect, said John MacKinnon, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, a trade association. He said less than 10 percent of all construction in the state would be affected by the change.
To say that means that jobs will now go to outsiders is a “gross overstatement,” he said.
“That’s offensive to Alaska contractors,” MacKinnon said. “Alaska contractors go out of their way to hire local, to hire Alaskan.”