Legislature(2003 - 2004)
03/25/2003 03:35 PM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 26-STATE EMPLOYEES CALLED TO MILITARY DUTY SENATOR KIM ELTON, bill sponsor, told a short story about Master Sergeant Steve Fernandez, a HH-60 Pavehawk gunner and a Williams Refinery employee who was recently called to serve a twelve month tour of active duty. His employer agreed to backfill his salary, which means his income won't be diminished while he is serving the state and nation. SB 26 allows the Governor to do the same thing for state employees. It provides that the Governor may backfill salaries and may extend benefits to both army and air guardsmen that are called for active duty. He noted there is a proposed amendment that would extend the benefit to the Alaska State Defense Force. This would affect a total of 138 state employees; 43 in the Army National Guard, 83 in the Air National Guard and 12 belong to the State Defense Force. Currently eight to ten of these employees have been called to active duty and last year just eight were called. The effective date is retroactive to 9/11/01 and the benefits that may be included are credited service, health and life insurance and SBS [Supplemental Benefit System]. He presented an amendment  that would delete "Alaska National Guard and the Alaska Naval Militia" following "including the" on page 1, line 9 and insert "organized militia of Alaska, consisting of the Alaska National Guard, the Alaska Naval Militia, and the Alaska State Defense Force". CHAIR GARY STEVENS asked him whether the Governor would be required to make the bill retroactive to 9/11/01. SENATOR ELTON explained the Governor isn't required to do anything; Administrative Order allows him the opportunity to extend benefits retroactively to anyone called to active duty post 9/11/01. SENATOR GRETCHEN GUESS asked for a review of what happens in the private sector and other governmental entities. SENATOR ELTON advised Tennessee was the most recent state to have passed the same type of legislation. The Williams Refinery employee is a private sector example and Chugach in Anchorage has also covered benefits and salary. This isn't an uncommon situation in the private sector, particularly in large companies. SENATOR GUESS recapped saying it's a choice in the private sector and this would extend the choice to the Governor for state employees. SENATOR ELTON agreed and advised this doesn't require the Governor provide the extension of benefits; it allows him to do so. There is also a provision that takes into account that some of the benefits are done under the purview of a negotiated contract and provides that for these benefits to be extended there would have to be a contract amendment. SENATOR GUESS noted she has a friend who is with the Anchorage Police Department who was called to active duty and has had to do without his salary for a year. She asked whether the state would have any authority over municipalities if the Governor were to elect this option. SENATOR ELTON assumed that would have to be addressed at the local level. The police officer clearly took a financial hit, but not all state employees who are called up would lose money. Some would actually make more money than in their state job. SB 26 would allow the extension of state benefits - credited service, SBS, and health and life insurance. SENATOR GUESS asked if PERS would be included. SENATOR ELTON replied just SBS and credited service. SENATOR COWDERY asked what the present requirements were for employers who have employees called for duty in addition to giving them their job back upon their return. SENATOR ELTON replied it is his understanding that is the only requirement. He didn't believe there was any requirement that the company provide extended benefits while the employee was in service. He advised he would check again to make sure that was correct. SENATOR COWDERY asked what other states do in this regard. SENATOR ELTON advised him that Tennessee adopted similar legislation recently. He pointed out the benefit package protects the employees family as well. SENATOR COWDERY asked how many Alaskans would be eligible. SENATOR ELTON replied it is hard to predict, but the Department of Administration reported eight state employees were called to active duty last year. SENATOR COWDERY related a story about a friend who is an Alaska Air National Guardsman who also works with Alaska Airlines and makes more money with the guard. He asked if there was a projected cost. SENATOR ELTON said if this had been in place last year, and if the Governor had extended the backfill provisions as well as the health benefits, SBS, and credited service benefit, the estimated cost to the state would have been $80,000. He admitted it's more difficult to look forward than back. SENATOR COWDERY asked if they anticipated any cap on the monthly pay benefit. SENATOR ELTON replied that is possible because the language provides that the Governor may do this. The language, particularly with regard to benefits, is purposefully flexible. SENATOR COWDERY asked if this would cover just regular time and not overtime. SENATOR ELTON conceded that was an interesting question. The bill language gives the Governor latitude to give the employees the equivalent of their state compensation. There is nothing that would preclude the Governor from taking overtime into account, but he would be somewhat surprised if that were to happen. SENATOR COWDERY asked for an accounting of overtime pay. He thought there were court cases to review. SENATOR ELTON agreed to check and added there is nothing to preclude the Governor from including this through Administrative Order. The intent of SB 26 is to keep the employee whole, to ensure they don't lose benefits for themselves and their family. CHAIR GARY STEVENS called for public testimony. MS. DEBRA GERRISH said she was the wife of an Army National Guard officer and her family will have to make do on $15,000 less while he is on active duty. Health insurance is a vital part of this bill because many families are left without any insurance when a family member is called to active duty. This is a shortcoming to which much of the public is unaware. Guard families have no organized support system and this would help those families. MS. JULIE BENSON testified via teleconference and said she is the wife of an Alaska State Trooper and Alaska National Guardsman. Her husband joined the Alaska Air National Guard when he left the Army and spent six month active duty in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom. She said, "SB 26 is essential legislation for state employees who make the difficult choice to serve not only their state, but also their country." When her husband was activated, the benefits he received as an Alaska State Trooper were immediately terminated, which resulted in lost retirement contributions, lost health care to his family and forfeited pay raises. She urged passage of SB 26. 4:00 pm MR. BUTCH STEIN testified via teleconference that he is a th retired, active duty member of the 168 Air Refueling Wing at Eielson Air Force Base. He served on the state steering committee for employers who support the guard and reserve. This bill would put the State of Alaska inline with Title 3080 United States Code, Chapter 43, which is also known as USERRA, Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights. SB 26 actually goes beyond the federal requirement, but he knows some states have done that. In the private sector, it is a case-by- case basis. He said, "These people are patriots and I don't think that word is used enough and I don't think most people realize the sacrifice these people make." SENATOR FRED DYSON said, "Amen." There was no further testimony. CHAIR GARY STEVENS asked for a motion to adopt amendment #1. SENATOR GUESS made a motion to adopt amendment #1. There being no objection, it was so ordered. SENATOR GUESS made a motion to move SB 26, as amended, from committee with individual recommendations and attached fiscal note. SENATOR DYSON acknowledged he was out of order but he wanted to state he was embarrassed the state treated Trooper Benson the way it did. He wanted the record to reflect that he thinks the trooper should be fully reimbursed by the state. CHAIR GARY STEVENS thanked the Senator for his comments. He advised members the motion before them was to move CSSB 26 (STA) from committee with individual recommendations and indeterminate fiscal note. There being no objection, it was so ordered.