Fairbanks International Airport seeks incentive pay for strained operation shortages

Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 11:05 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Employee shortages at Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) have affected maintenance staff, electricians and plumbers at the facility.

According to Jordan A. Adams, Business Manager and Secretary-Treasurer with Public Employees Local 71, who represents the affected workers in the maintenance field “we had 14 guys basically making up for six or seven more positions that weren’t there.”

This has created a strain for some workers.

One employee at FAI who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained, “That’s a normal yearly thing, to where you’re working twelve-hour shifts, non-stop, Monday through Sunday, no time off.

These operators are responsible for keeping the airport running, including snow and ice removal at landing zones. Danielle Tessen, Communication Manager with the Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner’s Office, said, “The operators at our airport systems, they’re the ones that keep it open. They’re the ones out there making sure that our runways are safe.”

“We actually go out and work on the active runway. We talk to air traffic control. We are very well trained,” said the anonymous employee.

Seven days a week, 365 days a year, those holding these jobs work to make sure the airport can continue to accept planes that come in. “Our airport runways, they have to be plowed. We have to work in accordance with FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] standards, and we have to keep them at a certain level of service, and so our operators are the ones that keep our runways at that level of service,” explained Tessen.

This also means, according to the unnamed employee, that maintenance workers are “at home basically waiting for weather on our days off, to be called in to come to work.”

In the fall of 2022, word came that maintenance workers at Ted Stevens International Airport (ANC) in Anchorage would receive what used to be called “Mission Critical Incentive Pay.”

“Mission Critical Incentive Pay is really a tool that the department can use when our ability to provide a service, like keep an airport open, is threatened, and that could be due to staffing,” explained Tessen.

This money is designed to make it easier to hire new workers and retain current employees. The pay comes from a pool of funding generated by the air carriers and airlines that utilize the airport system.

“It’s not actually the state spending more money on this issue, but it’s the state sort of putting the investments across the board for different regions of Alaska,” said Fairbanks representative Ashley Carrick.

According to DOT, efforts to secure this funding for Anchorage began in 2022. “Anchorage International had reported that they would not have enough staff that would be able to clear the runways in the winter time to continue to have aircrafts come in, and so they would have to close,” said Tessen.

As a result, workers there eventually saw a 30 percent increase in pay.

The process to approve this extra pay can take some time, according to Tessen. “Once we’ve identified the issue, we start working with our partnering agencies, and we start working through negotiations with our unions, and we also start looking at our budget.”

The process to get incentive pay for Fairbanks International began in January.

However, these workers have yet to see the additional pay. “It is something that can cause discrepancies between employees, but it’s something that we’re really devoted on seeking solutions,” she added.

According to the anonymous employee, morale among these job groups has gone downhill in the last month. “You just walk around any of our buildings, and you can just kind of see the long faces on everyone that would have gotten this raise.”

Meanwhile, members of the state legislature are working to secure the funding.

According to Carrick, “We have a workforce shortage across the state, and making sure that our major transportation center and our international airport... and our cargo hub is fully operational through the summer and the fall of this year is essential.”

However, to use the money for incentive pay, DOT must first secure a receipt authority from the legislature, Carrick said. “The state operating budget for both FY 23, so last year’s budget, and the budget we’re currently approving, FY 24′s budget, has to have that receipt authority as part of the budget in order to actually allocate or grant that incentive pay.”

Any increase that takes effect before July 1 would come from the supplemental budget for fiscal year 2023. Anything after that must be in the next year’s budget.

For now, both budgets have the needed actions. “The pay increase right now, the receipt authority for that is in the supplemental budget for Fiscal Year 23, and it’s also in the operating budget for Fiscal Year 24,” said Carrick.

As long as these measures stay in the budget, and are passed along with it, the process can move forward. According to Carrick, “The money should survive through the budget process in the legislature, but even at that point, it’s still subject to dispersal through the Department of Transportation and the Department of Administration through the Alaska Labor Relations Agency.”

On April 19, DOT Commissioner Ryan Anderson sent an email to staff at Fairbanks International. In it, he announced DOT had come to an agreement with Local 71. The Department of Administration approved and a Letter of Agreement was drafted.

It was signed April 21. “I think everybody’s pretty excited to get the roles filled, the vacancies reduced. We can also start reducing the amount of overtime each employee needs,” said Adams.

If all goes well, Carrick says workers could see the extra money by June or July, retroactive to January 9.