Governor puts freeze on hiring, travel

  • By Elwood Brehmer
  • Thursday, January 7, 2016 10:29am
  • NewsBusiness

Those cushy state jobs are going to be a little harder to come by after Gov. Bill Walker’s administration instituted a state hiring freeze and travel restrictions Jan. 5 for all executive branch departments.

Walker said during a press briefing that measures mostly already in place to restrict hiring and travel for state department employees were made official during a Jan. 4 cabinet meeting in which about half of his cabinet staff teleconferenced between Juneau and Anchorage.

“Each department’s sort of been doing their own thing on travel and hiring so it was time to formalize it so we had some consistency across the table,” the governor said.

The hiring freeze applies to all of the roughly 15,000 executive branch employees, except those deemed “essential in protecting the life, health or safety of Alaska citizens,” according to a memo from Walker’s Chief of Staff Jim Whitaker to state commissioners. Those essential positions include Alaska State Troopers, corrections and probations officers and employees providing patient and resident care at 24-hour state health and education institutions.

In keeping with all efforts to close the state’s $3.5 billion budget gap, revenue generating and collecting positions are also exempted, as are federally funded state positions and those funded with program revenue.

Nonessential travel — that for professional development and trade conferences — has been prohibited.

The 125 state boards and commissions have been asked to limit in-person meetings to one a year and teleconference otherwise.

Alaska has pushed through previous oil price dips that have restricted the state’s revenue stream without cutting its workforce, but Walker echoed petroleum industry analysts when he said this time is different.

“In the past we’ve always seen what they call the oil price bounce. There’s no bouncing in this one,” he commented.

Hiring waivers for department positions deemed essential can be granted on a case-by-case basis by Chief of Staff Whitaker. Similarly, travel exemptions can be sought from department commissioners and the state Boards and Commissions director, the memo states.

“We have attempted with this policy to balance the need to be efficient while saving money,” Department of Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher said at the briefing. “We do not want to in a harmful way impact the ability for departments to deliver their core mission.”

Walker said he asked leaders at the University of Alaska and other quasi-state agencies to consider implementing similar measures, though the governor has no jurisdiction over the outlying areas of government. He did not request that the legislative and judicial branches do the same, citing the separation of powers between the different branches of government.

The governor also said it is too early to tell exactly what the state will save from the measures. 

Shortly after Walker announced the hiring freeze a note clarifying the policy appeared on Workplace Alaska, the state’s job posting website. There were 129 general state positions and nine positions specifically for current state employees posted on the site late Jan. 5.

Walker’s administration says it has cut more than 600 positions, primarily through attrition and retirement, from the 15,800 executive branch positions the state had at the end of the 2015 fiscal year. 

The state has directly laid off employees, but Walker indicated that is a last resort.

“There are lots of folks that are impacted on a layoff, not just the individual working — also their families, and we feel very badly about having to do that,” the governor said.

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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