Thousands of essential workers who’ve bagged groceries, cared for the sick and elderly, delivered food, provided child care and done many other jobs to keep things running during the pandemic. Some received hazard pay for putting their health on the line while others waited for the day that a weak economy would close the doors and put them out of work.
Legislation in the Alaska Senate proposes thanking those essential workers with a new educational opportunity. Anchorage Democratic Sen. Tom Begich’s Senate Bill 10 proposes offering essential workers free tuition to pursue a college degree or job training from the Alaska Vocational Technical Center. It was heard by the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on Monday and has already advanced from the committee.
“Thousands of Alaskans have remained steadfast,” Begich told the committee. “They’ve supported us with their commitment to our communities in doing jobs that put them at risk on a daily basis whether it’s restocking grocery shelves to delivering medicine, from hauling away our trash to continuing to care for the most vulnerable among us, essential workers have provided the critical support for our community that we’ve needed during this pandemic. Now is the time for us to recognize those efforts and invest in this ready-and-able workforce.”
As currently written, the measure would make free tuition available to any essential worker employed in a variety of industries when the state issued its public health emergency order on Jan. 31, 2020 and either worked through the duration of the emergency or was laid off from the job at some point. Those workers would have four years to complete their college degree or finish the career training.
Begich said the measure is particularly warranted because the economic impacts of the pandemic have largely fallen on low-wage workers, who are still unemployed at a far higher rate than high-wage workers. He noted that a college degree or specialized training are some of the most effective ways to increase productivity and pay, lifting people up and reducing their reliance on state safety nets.
“Why that matters is you can’t have opportunity if you’re never given the chance for it,” he said. “This covid epidemic had a disproportionate impact on those least able to carve a path for their future.”
Michigan has already implemented a similar program, which attracted some 120,000 signups by its Dec. 31 deadline. In Alaska, Begich said the upper estimates are about 5,000 people would take advantage of the program and it would cost the state as much as $2.3 million annually. It would be funded out of the state’s higher education investment fund as opposed to the state’s strained savings accounts.
There was no opposition to the bill in committee on Monday, but Labor and Commerce Committee chair Sen. Mia Costello raised concerns over whether the measure would undermine the state’s grocery store workforce.
“I keep coming back to the fact that if they have an opportunity to go to school they’ll leave their position,” she said, “Have you talked to any grocery store managers in Anchorage or in the state about how this bill might impact their workforce?”
Begich said that he hadn’t but noted that many people attending college will also work a job and may continue working that job after graduation. He said the goal isn’t to specifically force anyone into any specific career path but to simply offer them the opportunity. What they do with that opportunity, he said, is up to them.
The bill is now headed for the Senate Education Committee before a trip to the Senate Finance Committee. It would still need to be approved by the House and, if passed, by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Those eligible for the program could potentially begin taking classes this fall.