City, borough and state governments in Alaska have stepped-up efforts over the past couple of weeks to allow more employees to work from home, to reduce the chance of spreading the novel coronavirus. But almost all of the 5,000 or so Alaskans who work on military installations must still show up at their workplaces.
As Alaska’s local and state governments scramble to figure out ways to allow more employees to work online from home, the federal government – one of the state’s largest employers – hasn’t made much progress.
“There’s very few,” says John Pennell, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Alaska, or USARAK. “I mean, we have plans in place for tele-working. But at this point, that’s one of the things that we’re holding in reserve in case the situation gets worse.”
USARAK is the largest Alaska-based Army command, and it’s headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, along with the Alaskan Command, the state’s largest Air Force organization. Spokespersons for the Alaskan Command and a higher headquarters say the Air Force also has only a few military and civilian personnel working from home right now. Pennell says it’s not easy for the military to enable more employees to work from home.
“Right now, our main focus is to ensure the continuing safety and health of our soldiers, their families and our civilian workforce,” he said. “While, at the same time, staying ready to respond to any situation that the nation requires.”
Pennell said in an interview last week that the military’s highest priority is maintaining readiness to respond to threats. And that mainly comes in the conventional form of a military armed force. But he says the Army will adapt its operations, as needed – including if necessary allowing more personnel to work at home.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation, not only here in Alaska but also nationwide and worldwide,” Pennell said. “And as things develop, we’re prepared to adapt and change the way we do business, if we need to.”
Air Force spokespersons said in emails last week that the Alaskan Command is making bandwidth available to personnel who are working from home. The command is reviewing plans to ensure, quote, “connectivity and capability are maintained if teleworking is more broadly implemented.”
n Air Force contractor employee at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson says she wishes that would happen, so she could telework.
“I can’t work from home,” says Patricia Rhine. “It’s going to be a problem for the company. It’s a lot of stuff that they’d need to set up. We just don’t have like our own laptops and stuff like that.”
Rhine works for a contractor that arranges official travel for JBER’s military and civilians. And she says, besides the technical limitations, she can’t do her job over the phone or online because much of it requires face-time with customers.
“We need to see them in person and see their orders,” she said. “So it’s not something that we can really just say, ‘OK, we will book it over the phone.’ Because we can’t do that.”
But Rhine said in an interview last week that some aspects of her job had already changed because of concerns over the spread of coronavirus. Those include scrambling to cancel or reschedule customers’ reservations in response to the military’s ban on almost all travel, for at least few weeks.
“So right now, they can’t leave until like May,” she said. “So, even if they have to report to their new duty station, that can’t do that.”
Rhine says because of that, business slowed down late last week. And she says she and her coworkers now have something else to worry about, besides the coronavirus – getting laid-off.