Even though the races for governor and U.S. senator will command more public attention this year, the statewide office that Brad Avakian has held for the past six years has a deeper reach into the lives of most Oregonians.
Since it was created more than a century ago, the Bureau of Labor and Industries enforces laws regulating wages and hours and barring discrimination in workplaces and public accommodations. It also oversees apprenticeship programs and works with business, labor unions, schools and others to develop the skills of current and future workers.
Yet one recent commissioner attempted to persuade lawmakers to abolish the office. Lawmakers declined to do so, although in 1995, they made the office nonpartisan.
Avakian was a civil rights lawyer and a Democratic state senator from Beaverton six years ago when his predecessor resigned to take a job as a union lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
Avakian said his office responds to 60,000 inquiries from individuals and 20,000 from businesses annually.
“I would like to think that people and businesses are much more aware now of what we offer them than when we started,” he said last week.
In an election year, his office has thrust itself into the emerging national debate about income inequality and pay inequity.
For the third time in six years, Avakian is up for election.
Avakian won a full four-year term later in 2008. But lawmakers in 2009 shortened the term of whoever was elected in November 2012 to two years, so that the office would return to the same election cycle as the governor. Avakian held off a challenge from Bruce Starr, a small-business man and a Republican state senator from Hillsboro, with 52 percent of the vote.
This time, the nonpartisan office will be on the May 20 primary ballot, when Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley are unlikely to face significant opposition for renomination — but Republicans will have at least one contest. No opponent to Avakian has emerged yet, but if Avakian fails to win a majority in the primary, the top two candidates go to the Nov. 4 general election.
“I have got to believe there will be a tough opponent,” he said.
But Avakian hasn’t shied away from controversy in an election year.
Last week, he suggested that Oregon reassess its minimum-wage escalator — which is linked to inflation — to ensure that workers are above the federal poverty level.
He supports the linkage, which Oregon voters approved in 2002 and is the law in 10 other states. But he rejects criticisms of the law resulting in the nation’s second-highest minimum wage at $9.10 per hour. He said the law offers businesses a predictable indicator and workers more money that is recirculated in the economy almost immediately.
According to newly released 2014 federal poverty guidelines, the level for a family of three is $19,790, which would be the equivalent of a $9.51 per-hour wage for someone working 40 hours per week.
Avakian chose not to rebut a Congressional Budget Office report last week that suggested mixed results from a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage.
Last month, he received recommendations from the Oregon Council of Civil Rights on how to close the wage gap between women and men in Oregon. For every dollar men earned in 2012, women earned 79 cents — 2 cents more than the national average — and black and Hispanic women earned even less on average.
Avakian said the bureau will spend the next year preparing an action plan for the 2015 legislative session and beyond.
“It’s not only going to be an enforcement effort,” Avakian said. “We will act to aggressively enforce the law when we find discrimination. But we know that to eliminate the wage gap across industry sectors for everybody, it’s going to take a shift in the business culture.”
He said that shift will involve businesses providing family-friendly services such as day care and flexible scheduling, and self-monitoring of payrolls to detect unintentional pay inequities. Other likely steps, he said, will involve education and training to prepare women for careers in higher-paying jobs and empower them to negotiate starting pay and benefits.
Oregon passed an equal-pay law eight years before Congress enacted a similar law in 1963.
Avakian said he was invited to take part in a recent national town hall with U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, as a result of the report.
“I think you will see other states and people at the national level look to Oregon to be a leader again,” he said.
During an appearance at the Marion DemoForum last week, Avakian was asked about likely opposition from business interests to elements of an equal-pay plan. He said some businesses do see change in their own interests as post-World War II baby-boomer workers retire and the workforce changes.
He also said that political allies can emerge from unlikely quarters, such as what happened with the 2011 legislation — sponsored by himself and lawmakers from both parties — to offer grants for re-establishment of career and technical training in middle and high schools.
“It was your chamber of commerce right here in Salem that was the first organization in Oregon to endorse the bill to bring back shop classes to high schools,” Avakian said, noting that such training extends beyond shop. Restaurants, he said, weren’t far behind.
Lawmakers set aside $10 million last year, resulting in programs at 161 middle and high schools.
“We always have to be looking for ways we can work with the folks we think of as being on the other side, because they’re not always on the other side,” he said. “Oregon used to be that way, better than most states — and I want it to be that way again.”
pwong@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745 or Twitter.com/capitolwong