Candidates to run Oregon’s labor bureau see similar problems, different solutions
The race for BOLI commissioner pits employment lawyer Christina Stephenson against restaurant owner and former state representative Cheri Helt.
All eyes are on the Oregon governor’s race in the run-up to Election Day. But there’s another statewide election in which a woman is bound to prevail: the competition to lead the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries, known as BOLI.
Here are a few things to know about that race.
First, remind us why BOLI matters
BOLI is often described as a referee between workers and employers. If your boss withholds a paycheck, you can turn to BOLI for help. Likewise if you’re an employer trying to understand your responsibilities under the law. BOLI is also meant to be a civil rights watchdog. People who face discrimination at work, in housing or at businesses like stores and restaurants can file complaints with the agency — though backlogs have slowed BOLI’s ability to respond to potential civil rights and wage violations.
The agency plays a role in workforce development too, overseeing the state’s apprenticeship programs, some of which are getting a historic boost from Gov. Kate Brown’s Future Ready Oregon package.
Who are the candidates?
Employment lawyer Christina Stephenson led by a wide margin in the May primary, but she fell just short of half the vote, pushing the race into a general election run-off. Stephenson, who hails from Washington County, has won the endorsements of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek and current BOLI commissioner Val Hoyle, as well as multiple former commissioners and labor groups. Stephenson points to her “tens of thousands of hours” worth of experience with employment law as her qualification for the post, in addition to her experience running a small business — her law practice.
Bend restaurant owner Cheri Helt, who got 19% of the vote in May, also touts her small business experience as qualifying her for the BOLI job. Helt served one term as a Republican representative in the Oregon house. She also spent nearly a decade on the Bend-La Pine school board. Helt had a reputation as a moderate in the Legislature, in part forstaying put when Republican lawmakers staged walkouts. She’s brought a sharper tone to the non-partisan BOLI race, however, repeatedly calling BOLI a “failing agency” and accusing Stephenson of “expensive extremism.” She lists endorsements from Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, as well as Oregon Business & Industry and Timber Unity.
What is Stephenson’s top priority?
In her work as a civil rights attorney, Stephenson primarily represents workers. Familiarity with employment law is her bread and butter.
In the campaign, Stephenson has said developing a skilled workforce is her top priority. She says the state’sworker shortage is a crisis in fields like health care, construction and high-tech manufacturing.
“I’m going to be laser-focused on helping businesses find the workers they need, and helping Oregonians find a good paying job,”Stephenson told OPB’s Think Out Loud.
Stephenson wants Oregon to expand its apprenticeship model to include more emerging industries and more specializations, including in health care. She points to one certified nursing assistant apprenticeship as an example. Preparing more K-12 students to seamlessly access apprenticeships after high school is also a priority.
Helt says she wants to expand apprenticeships in fields such as health care and semiconductor manufacturing as well. As commissioner, she says she’d push toreduce the required ratio of journey-level workers to apprentices in some programs, so more learners can access them. The state apprenticeship council is already set to consider, in December, whether to lower the teacher/student ratio in certain electrical apprenticeships.
What is Helt’s top priority?
Helt told OPB her priority is “fixing a failing agency,” namely by resolving the agency’s backlog of civil rights claims waiting for investigation.
BOLI says it has a backlog of more than 1,200 civil rights claims that have yet to be assigned to an intake officer within the Civil Rights Division. It currently takes about seven months for the agency to resolve civil rights complaints once assigned.
“People that are being discriminated against, racially and sexually, are being put in a line and being put through a process of red tape,” Helt said. “And that is just not acceptable.”
If elected, Helt plans to immediately launch an internal audit of BOLI and she wants the Oregon Secretary of State to audit the agency as well.
Stephenson agrees that tackling investigation backlogs is a priority, though she’d handle it differently.
“A person who has had their wages stolen — getting them the money that they are owed could be the difference between them making rent, being able to pay for groceries,” Stephenson said. “So, of course, it is a top concern for us to get these cases through as fast as we possibly can.”
So, what’s different about the candidates’ plans for addressing the backlog?
They have different approaches to funding, for one.
BOLI’s budget for the current biennium is more than $62 million. That includes almost $20 million in one-time funds the agency is giving out in Future Ready Oregon grants.
Helt says the agency has enough money. “We cannot make excuses on funding,” she said, insisting the agency can accomplish more through strategic planning.
“I want to be clear that I’m not going to ask for another dollar,” Helt told OPB. “If there’s any money to be spent, I want it to be spent inside of our schools.”
But Stephenson says BOLI has been underfunded and understaffed for years. For complaints to be investigated in a timely manner, she says, all options should be on the table — including increasing the agency’s budget.
Stephenson says a model of strategic enforcement could also reduce backlogs while preserving limited resources. That would mean targeting repeat offenders. “Go after employers or industries that are intentionally violating the law — people who make wage theft, for example, part of their business model,” she said.
Stephenson believes a data-driven approach could further reduce the number of worker complaints. The agency should identify areas in which employers are struggling to comply with the law, she says, and then increase technical assistance on those topics.
In the run-up to Election Day, one of the candidates’ biggest differences has been tone. Stephenson, the frontrunner, has been careful and measured in debates. Helt’s public persona is both more comfortable and more critical. Her talk of failing agencies aligns with a growing dissatisfaction with state government. “I am not endorsed by anyone who has ever run BOLI,”she told the League of Women Voters of Portland. “That’s because I don’t like the way that it’s run.”
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