Anchorage’s pandemic jobs program wraps up, for now

Six workers in fluorescent vests stand outside a warehouse in winter
From left to right, Ielu Ueselani, Candace Blas, Richard Bachman, Tyler Kiel, Andy Ethington and Kevin Kirst are part of a tree removal crew funded through Anchorage’s CARES Act Money. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s municipal beetle-kill spruce removal team wrapped up work for the season last week.

“Today’s actually our last day,” Andy Ethington, 26, said as he walked through a warehouse in South Anchorage. “So, we’re just cleaning out all the trucks, cleaning out the storage room. This is where we keep all the chainsaws and stuff,” he said, pointing inside.

Ethington is one of 25 tree removal employees the city hired last August to tackle the widespread issue of beetle-killed spruce trees around Anchorage. Since September, they’ve worked seven days a week felling dead trees, and chopping them into free firewood for the neighborhood. 

Pre-COVID, Ethington planned to work for the Forest Service. When his job was canceled, he tried finding a restaurant job. With the shutdowns, no one was hiring. 

“It’s really given me a good purpose to be here,” he said. “Because I thought I was gonna be stuck doing restaurant work, which would have been cool. That’s what I’m comfortable with. But that’s just not something that is lucrative right now.”

Tyler Kiel, 22, was laid off from a groundskeeping job because of COVID. With the tree removal job ending, he said he’ll try to find another job, but if he can’t, he’ll have to file for unemployment.

“Coming to work here kind of saved me because it was really the only thing that I could find for work at all,” he said. “Everywhere else I was trying to apply just either wasn’t calling me back or they weren’t hiring, didn’t need people because of COVID.”

Candace Blas, one of two women on the team, came from a nonprofit desk job and said she never considered the job of an arborist — someone who takes care of trees.

“I didn’t realize how much I would love working outside,” she said. “I love working with trees and the precision and knowledge actually that goes into it. It’s like an art form.” 

A woman wearing a plaid shirt, beanie and fluorescent work vest smiles in front of a warehouse.
32-year-old Candace Blas found a job through the municipality’s jobs program after her previous job was canceled due to COVID-19. (Kavitha George/Alaska Public Media)

Blas said, as a woman, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to keep up with such a physically demanding job. But many of the new hires were first-time park workers, too. Lots of them had never even held a chainsaw, she said.

“That was a great equalizing thought. And that actually empowered me to be like, wait, ‘I can actually excel here,’ you know? And it turns out I’m better in some ways,” she said.

The Anchorage Assembly carved out $4.5 million in CARES Act money for the program. $3 million has been spent so far on tree removal, trail restoration and other pre-approved Parks & Recreation projects. The rest is going to fund more jobs this year, according to department director Josh Durand.

80-90% of each project’s cost is used to pay employees, he said. Between three trail projects and the tree removal team, the city hired about 40 people for two to four months of work. Some money also went to contracts with existing tree removal companies.

“I think an important thing to recognize is, not only is this funding getting people back to work, and people have a viable income for a period of time, but it’s also helping us meet the higher demand of outdoor use and safety,” Durand said.

From March through the summer, he said the city has seen a 30 percent increase in trail usage. Tree removal was already a priority, since dead trees, which stand in more than half of Anchorage’s parks, can pose fire risks and windstorm safety hazards. 

Most of the tree removal team makes about $18 an hour. For Blas it was a pay cut, but she’s excited to have discovered a new passion and possible career path.

“I’m sort of scraping by right now. But I’m happy, and doing things that I enjoy,” she said.

Many on the team are looking forward to the new year, hoping to get work when Parks and Recreation sets up more jobs with the remaining CARES Act money.