The COVID-19 pandemic has served as yet another reminder of the precarious position Alaska is in with limited infrastructure on everything from the capacity of the health care system to delivery of goods and digital connectivity.
As legislators and the governor consider moving ahead with allocating federal COVID-19 aide, one labor leader is calling on them to spend wisely. Dave Reaves, the business manager with IBEW Local 1547, spoke with The Midnight Sun about labor’s perspective on what might be ahead and the need for gaps in infrastructure to be met.
“I think safety has to be first and foremost on the list by ensuring our health-care providers, emergency responders and essential workers have all necessary and sufficient amounts of PPE,” he said. “After that to me it is laying out a plan to address the states critical infrastructure that was impacted from COVID-19 or was shown to have potential weaknesses such as health-care facilities with adequate ICU and negative pressure rooms, electrical and communication infrastructure in those health-care facilities and across the state that support applications like telemedicine that has been proven to be so valuable to a rural and large state like Alaska.”
With legislators expected to return to Juneau to set out a plan for how some $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding will be used (Dunleavy has his own plan, but it’s run into both legal and political roadblocks), Reaves provided us with a list of some of the priorities he’d like to see considered:
- Apprenticeship School funding for training our resident workforce that will be needed here in Alaska.
- Electrical infrastructure upgrades on the Railbelt and statewide to keep reliable power to all communities, hospitals and health-care facilities.
- Communication fiber upgrade projects statewide to aid in telemedicine for all communities of Alaska. Now more than ever in the COVID-19 crisis we have seen the value of telemedicine (which we have already as part of our self-funded health and welfare plan).
- Hospital upgrade projects statewide to allow for more ICU rooms and/or rooms to easily be converted to ICU and negative pressure.
- Airport expansion to accommodate emergency transportation to access all communities of Alaska.
- Port of Alaska – 70% of the goods for the state enter this Port. This only makes sense.
- Port of Nome – Another expansion project that could benefit all communities in Western Alaska.
- PPE for Healthcare, frontline and workers deemed essential that have and will continue to work.
- Expanded health care benefits for those losing or that will lose coverage due to COVID-19 and being furloughed, laid-off or let go.
There’s been a large amount of uncertainty about what the federal funds can and cannot cover. The U.S. Treasury released additional guidance on Wednesday afternoon, clarifying that the funds can be spent on some economic measures and increased infrastructure, specifically highlighting improvements for telehealth and telework activities. It also would allow the money to cover some economic relief efforts such as payroll support and small business grants.
Reaves agreed that things won’t really get back to normal until a vaccine is widely available and until then, he said labor will continue to play an important role in keeping things running.
“Labor has had a critical role in keeping so much of what we take for granted working everyday like hospitals and healthcare facilities, utilities that include telecommunications, natural gas, and power, as well as our basic needs to survive in grocery stores, the trucking industry to make deliveries, and our ports and airports with cargo including the postal service.,” he said. “As we slowly work towards returning to normal labor will continue to keep all these services and those that serve our everyday lives working, and hopefully through construction upgrading the critical infrastructure pieces that need to be addressed.”
The House Labor and Commerce Committee is scheduled to meet on Friday to review the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the public health response.
The Legislature is expected to return to session in some format to consider new spending in the next few weeks.