What a State Can Do to Build Its Middle Class

Alaska's efforts to protect and boost wages are comprehensive, and they're paying off.
January 25, 2016 AT 9:00 AM
By Heidi Drygas  |  Contributor
Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development

Across the country, elected officials are finally recognizing the 40-year trend of America's disappearing middle class. Rising inequality, stagnant real wages, and the rising costs of education and housing are all components of the problem. Here in Alaska, as in other states, we're pulling policy levers to raise wages, expand career pathways and create more affordable education options, with the core mission of sustaining and expanding our middle class.

It starts with wages: We cannot sustain or enhance working families' economic security without addressing this issue. Alaska is joining California and other states to aggressively battle wage theft, an increasingly common phenomenon. Like most other states, we have a state Wage and Hour Administration that can help wage-theft victims recover lost wages. But unlike many other states, under our statute Alaska workers can recover treble damages from perpetrators of wage theft -- a vital disincentive for employers to cheat.

Alaska is an extraordinarily diverse state, and cracking down on wage theft requires educating workers about labor rights in languages they understand, so our Wage and Hour staff has made "Know Your Rights" documents available in the Native language of Yup'ik as well as in Samoan, Tagalog, Spanish, Korean and other languages. We have reached out proactively to numerous community groups to hold labor-rights workshops and distribute multilingual information.

The most extreme form of wage theft often occurs when workers are victims of human trafficking, which we know has occurred in a wide range of industries in Alaska. So our Department of Labor and Workforce Development has partnered with Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to establish the Alaska Human Trafficking Working Group, bringing together state, local and federal law enforcement, civil regulatory enforcement agencies, and victim-service providers. This effort will never be complete, given the prevalence of trafficking in the global economy, but it is an essential component of comprehensive efforts to fight low wages that occur in the black market.

Sometimes the simplest way to combat wage theft is to enforce existing statutes. Like many others, Alaska has a "Little Davis-Bacon Act," modeled on the federal statute, that establishes prevailing wages for state projects. Enforcing the Little Davis-Bacon Act may be politically unpopular if it involves high-profile contractors, but it plays a central role in sustaining our blue-collar middle class.

Of course, wages are not the only issue facing a rapidly-dwindling middle class: health coverage, unemployment insurance and other benefits matter just as much from a working family's perspective. Like two dozen other states, Alaska has signed an memorandum of understanding with the federal Department of Labor to increase information-sharing and reduce worker misclassification. We also created a working group of multiple Alaska state agencies to enhance enforcement coordination within departments such as Licensing, Insurance, Workers' Compensation, and Wage and Hour. We've gone to court when necessary; Uber, for example, signed a settlement with our department agreeing to stay out of Alaska until it complies with our workers' compensation statute and other laws.

We're also working with employers to expand training opportunities that contribute to higher wages while expanding access to affordable higher education. Alaska already has the highest construction wages in the country, thanks to a very strong network of Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees and the second-highest union density among states. Our construction employers and labor unions jointly run apprenticeship training programs. And Gov. Bill Walker recently extended the state's apprenticeship-utilization standards to state buildings and resource development projects, expanding on a successful policy established by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2006.

Now, just as Washington state has done, we're also working on expanding apprenticeships to Alaska's fast-growing industries, such as health care. Our department recently won an American Apprenticeship Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, and we're putting it to work by expanding registered apprenticeship opportunities for high-demand positions such as surgical technologists, certified nurse assistants and behavioral health aides. By allowing workers to earn while they learn, registered apprenticeships make post-secondary credentialing achievable for working-class students without forcing them to incur unsustainable debt loads.

These policies are paying off, not only for workers but for the state's economy. Unlike the United States as a whole, Alaska has seen real wages rise since 2000. Our policies represent a coherent suite of actions that are focused on sustaining and enhancing the economic prosperity of our middle class. If other states are as successful in this effort as we have been, we will provide a compelling model for the federal government to follow.