UAF sign

The sign at the main entrance to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus is seen Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

Alaska lawmakers are considering a bill to offer free or reduced tuition to Alaska’s essential workers and people who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Qualifying essential workers — also known as front-line workers — would include grocery clerks, hospital personnel, janitors, personal care attendants, delivery drivers and others who helped to provide Alaskans with necessary goods and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The $10 million program would be funded through the Alaska Higher Education Fund. Lawmakers discussed using federal relief dollars to cover the costs. If enacted, the bill would fund individual grants for education and training at a state-supported post-secondary institution. 

The AFL-CIO Alaska and the University of Alaska voiced support for the legislation Thursday during a Senate Finance Committee meeting.

“Frontline workers made significant sacrifices during this pandemic,” said Sen. Tom Begich, who is sponsoring the bill. 

To qualify, an individual must have been an essential worker on Jan. 31, 2020, when the federal government declared a national emergency related to COVID-19. Or, the applicant may have been laid off as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and public emergency that closed many businesses. The applicant also will need to be a resident of Alaska for a minimum of 12 months to qualify. Applicants would need to express interest in the program by the end of 2021. Individuals then have up to four years to complete their training and/or education. The program would expire on Dec. 31, 2025. 

Begich said the program is temporary for a reason, as it is strictly related to individuals impacted by COVID-19. 

He noted that Alaska is modeling grants for free and reduced tuition after a similar program in Michigan, which has been funded through federal emergency relief money.

If the Alaska program is adopted, individual grants would be provided to cover the cost of tuition and fees, after federal student aid is applied.

Begich said the grants will help stem a net out-migration of Alaska residents leaving the state for other opportunities. “We need to stop the attrition of Alaska’s future,” he said. “Higher education points to higher incomes.”

He urged fellow lawmakers to “prepare for a future in a post-pandemic world.”

Don Etheridge of the AFL-CIO Alaska told lawmakers that his organization supports the bill. “Many of our members have stepped up and have been working hard through the pandemic,” Etheridge said. 

“They have important jobs that make our economy move,” he said. “We need to give these folks the opportunity to improve themselves. We’ve lost a lot of jobs. We have members out of work.”

Teri Cothren, associate vice president of Workforce Development at the University of Alaska, spoke to the Senate Finance Committee, in support of the bill. 

Cothren described the University of Alaska system as the “most comprehensive workforce provider” in Alaska, offering a range of options, from technical certifications to doctoral degrees.

“We’ve got really good jobs in Alaska,” Cothren said after the hearing. “We just need to get Alaskans trained for those jobs.”

Cothren emphasized the value of a post-secondary education in Alaska, stating that median income for high school graduates is $35,328, rising to $57,708 for people with bachelor’s degrees and $77,402 for those with graduate and professional degrees.

“The university is positioned to reskill Alaskans who need a new career path and to upskill those who want to advance their careers,” she told lawmakers. “We can train more Alaskans to support Alaska’s economic recovery.”

She identified nine key Alaska industries as: administration and finance; aviation; construction; fisheries and marine science; healthcare; information technology; mining; oil and gas; and education.

Sen. Burt Stedman said that he expects the construction industry to rebound, with an infusion of federal dollars projected for capital projects.

“We don’t exactly know what’s coming in the next one or two big COVID packages, but it appears that there are discussions of doubling our federal monies coming into the capital budget — for our roads and airports — from one billion to two billion for eight years,” he said. 

“We need to look forward to how we will train our workforce,” he said. “These programs and increases in federal funding are nationwide. We will have a potential shortage of workers in Alaska.”

Contact political reporter Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.