State: Raises keep workers

Special session scrutinizes contracts, how to pay for them

Posted: Friday, May 05, 2000

In the first day of a special legislative session, lawmakers grilled state officials about the labor contracts they negotiated and their plans for a strike if one is called.

Possible ways to pay for the contract costs were expected to be discussed today.

Gov. Tony Knowles called the special session after legislators adjourned their regular session without funding the labor contracts, which include raises for thousands of state workers.

A joint House and Senate Finance Committee meeting held Thursday heard Department of Administration Commissioner Bob Poe give his pitch for why state workers need raises.

Poe said the state is having trouble attracting and retaining good workers because state salaries have remained stagnant while private and other government sector pay has gone up.

``That's really the problem we're trying to solve is keeping good employees,'' he said. ``It all comes back to that `What have you done for me lately?' kind of thing.''

The state has 79 unfilled engineering jobs at the Department of Transportation and is losing information technology workers to companies that can offer much better pay, he said.

Republican legislators responded with tough questions.

In addition to overall costs, they particularly questioned a contract provision that lets Alaska State Employees Association workers cash in part of their accumulated sick leave, in exchange for giving up nine days of leave.

If all eligible workers cashed in all their eligible sick leave, the state could be left with a $22 million bill. Poe, however, said that is an unlikely scenario and costs would be covered by a reserve account.

House Finance Committee Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, asked what steps had taken to identify essential employees if a strike occurs.

Poe said some, such as troopers and correctional officers, are not allowed to strike under law. Others, including snow removal and sanitation workers, can be called back to work after a limited period of time.

If a strike occurred, the state would also benefit from its efforts last year to prepare for the Year 2000 computer bug.

``We know an awful lot about how to keep basic services going if we have to,'' Poe said. But, he added, ``We have not engaged in full-out strike planning at this point.''

Members of ASEA, the largest state workers' union, have already authorized a strike if contracts aren't funded. But the state would still have time to plan because unions would have to return to the bargaining table for 10 days before an impasse could be declared, Deputy Administration Commissioner Alison Elgee said. Other steps mean the state could have at least 30 days warning before a strike, Elgee said.

The three-year contracts negotiated with a dozen state labor unions call for most members to receive $1,200 bonuses in July, 2 percent raises in 2001 and 3 percent raises in 2002. The deals also call for additional state spending on health care benefits.

The cost of those contracts, combined with increases for non-union workers and university employees, is $32.2 million in the next fiscal year.

Estimates on Thursday were that $19.1 million of that would have to come from the state's general fund. Republican majority leaders have said they don't want to spend general fund money on the contracts because that would destroy their efforts to cut $30 million in general fund spending this year.

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