Think Out Loud

Bureau of Labor and Industries candidates debate

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Oct. 20, 2022 8:23 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Oct. 24

The Bureau of Labor and Industries oversees the rights of workers in Oregon. Two candidates are vying to be the state’s next labor commissioner, a nonpartisan role. Cheri Helt is a former Republican state representative and a former member of the Bend-La Pine school board. Christina Stephenson is a civil rights attorney who represents workers in employment disputes. Both candidates join us for a debate.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We continue our ongoing election coverage right now. The Bureau of Labor and Industries, or BOLI, oversees and enforces the rights of workers in Oregon. It’s led by Oregon’s Labor Commissioner, which is a nonpartisan position. No candidate for the position got more than 50% of the vote in the May primary, so the top two candidates are on the November ballot.

Cheri Helt from Bend served one term as a Republican state representative. She has been the co owner of Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails, a restaurant in Bend for nearly 20 years. Christina Stephenson is a civil rights attorney who represents workers in employment disputes. We talked last week. I started by asking Cheri Helt what her priorities would be as labor commissioner.

Cheri Helt: Well, my first priority is going to be fixing a failing agency. We have unassigned cases in the civil rights department that I find unacceptable, and I think we need to do better by Oregon’s standards and make sure that everyone that needs to have a complaint investigated does. And I want to really make sure that happens.

I also want to build the workforce for our future by making sure that we expand out apprenticeships and on the job training into different areas that we are not currently, with healthcare and chip making and childcare. And also expanding out our apprenticeships that we currently have to meet the needs of our workforce housing shortage. We need to make construction trades, that we have electricians and plumbers that can build 111,000 homes that we are currently short in the state of Oregon to meet our workforce housing needs.

Miller: Christina Stephenson, what would your priorities be?

Christina Stephenson: Well right now, working families, small businesses, we are all struggling with rising costs. And so I’m going to be laser focused on helping businesses find the workers they need, and helping Oregonians find a good paying job, earn a raise, keep up with inflation. So I’m gonna make sure that we’re investing in our apprenticeship programs, programs that are regulated by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, so that we can staff our schools, construction sites, hospitals. I’m going to make sure that we’re enforcing the law, making sure everyone can access their rights, sick leave, discrimination free workplaces. And going to be making sure that we empower employers, do the right thing, given the tools they need to comply with the rules.

Miller: Cheri Helt, you call this a failing agency and noted that there are unassigned cases right now. What’s your diagnosis for what’s wrong right now?

Helt: Well, we have had many people that have come to this job for political reasons instead of upholding the agency. And I want to come and fix a failing agency and make sure that we have a fair and balanced approach. We have one sided representation on many of these boards for our apprenticeships. Right now, we have 661 apprenticeships that we could get into place if we could change the ratios for apprenticeships.

Miller: What do you mean by that in terms of changing the ratios?

Helt: On the west coast, California and Washington both have 1 to 1 ratios for apprenticeships. We have 3 to 2. And that artificially lowers the amount of people we can get into the workforce. And we need to make sure if we’re going to build a workforce for our future, that we are building it in an intentional way.

Miller: This is just my ignorance, but what’s the numerator and denominator in terms of those ratios? The 1-1 north and south of us, but 3-2 in Oregon, what are we actually talking about?

Helt: Oregon has to have three journeymen for every two apprenticeships, which makes a backlog. So when you go to get an electrician or a plumber and can’t, we have the lowest restrictive ratios. And as a commissioner, I want to come in and really start creating opportunities, and really change the dialogue. And I’m very proud to be endorsed by Betsy Johnson and Christine Drazen, because they’re representing the change that needs to happen in our state. And I am ready to change this failing agency and move it into a place where it’s serving Oregonians.

When I was in the house, I dealt with the unemployment crisis. We all remember when our businesses were shut down and Oregonians couldn’t get unemployment. In my office alone, we made sure that 500 people in my area were able to access unemployment. It took many, many weeks and a lot of hard work. But that’s the kind of change that I want to bring. We have 2000 cases right now that are backlogged in civil rights, and everyone that has a case right now deserves to be heard. I want to bring the customer service experience that I have in the restaurant industry to a failing agency, and change it around to make sure it’s working for Oregonians.

Miller: Christina Stephenson, do you agree the agency you are asking Oregonians to give you a chance to lead is failing?

Stephenson: I think what Oregonians should understand about this agency is the historical context in which we find ourselves. This is an agency that has less people working there than it did in the 90s. The case backlogs have been a perennial issue going back many, many years, and our current commissioner is the first commissioner in many years that has been able to increase BOLI’s budget to start to get at some of the backlog. Of course, all of us want BOLI to be able to investigate civil rights and wage and hour complaints in a speedy fashion, especially 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. So of course it is a top concern for us to get these cases through as fast as we possibly can. And I think that we have to examine all of the options on the table.

What I don’t want is us sacrificing quality. I don’t want us saying, in order to meet some arbitrary rubrics of getting cases investigated in a arbitrary timeline that we will truncate the investigations, we won’t give people the full investigations they’re entitled to. We have to determine how are we going to do this without sacrificing investigation and other divisions, wage and hour, civil rights, and apprenticeship divisions being the main divisions at BOLI. So if we want all of the things, which we always do, we have to make the case to the legislature that BOLI has been a good steward of taxpayer funds, and will continue to do that.

Miller: Well, let’s say that you made that case, but they said sorry, times are tough, we’re not going to give you a significantly larger budget to hire more investigators or more people at BOLI. How would you prioritize the different kinds of work that happens at BOLI, and the different kinds of cases or complaints that come to you? Christina Stephenson, you can go first.

Stephenson: Yeah, it’s a great question. That’s the question that I’ve been asking national leaders in this space. And what we found is a model, it’s called Strategic Enforcement, and it really contemplates the situation that most public agencies are in, finite resources and a lot on the to do list. This is a model where we’re going to prioritize the agency’s attention, decide which level of intervention is needed. There’s kind of a stepped up intervention process depending on the case. And then the idea is really just to preserve those limited resources to go after employers or industries that are intentionally violating the law, people who make wage theft, for example, part of their business model, repeat offenders. This is how we start to get at some of that backlog.

And then the other piece is, is really going as far upstream as we can to make sure that our businesses are empowered with the tools they need to understand the law, and understand their obligations because we have made it simple, easy, accessible, because we have partnered with them, really simple things like having them opt into an email list from BOLI that lets them know this new regulation is out, minimum wage just went up. And we use the data that is at BOLI already, we can look at it now and say “we see our employers are maybe struggling with disability law, or they’re struggling with late paycheck laws,” whatever it is. We use that data, and then we go to our employer community and help them understand the law in those areas where we see them struggling. And if we do more on the technical assistance side, I think we end up with less complaints.

Just to give people a sense, we’ve got 500,000 businesses in Oregon, and we’ve got about six people in the technical assistance program. So that’s another place where it will make a difference.

Miller: Sherry Helt, how would you prioritize the different kinds of work that happens at BOLI, and the different kinds of cases that are brought to the agency, assuming that you don’t get a big new infusion of funding?

Helt: Well, thanks for that question Dave. I want to talk about the funding first. Oregonians need results. This agency has not brought the results that Oregonians need and deserve, and this agency is obligated to provide, for a long time. And we cannot make excuses on funding. We have to make those results happen regardless of funding. And I believe that we can.

We also have a large infusion of cash that is in workforce development. $120 million is coming into this agency around workforce development, and it will be going into other agencies as well, but workforce development is housed in BOLI. And so there is plenty of money to go around.

And I want to be clear that I’m not going to ask for another dollar. If there’s any money to be spent, I want it to be spent inside of our schools, because our schools and our students deserve some help to get themselves out of the pandemic crisis that was caused. And I think that money should go towards other things inside of our schools.


You asked me what I was going to prioritize. I would prioritize discrimination cases immediately. I worked in the restaurant industry for almost 20 years in Bend, owning my own restaurant. And I can tell you that one of the most important things that people want is to be heard. And people are not being heard in the state of Oregon. People that are being discriminated against racially and sexually are being put in a line and being put through a process of red tape. And that is just not acceptable. What we need is change. We need someone with a fresh vision, a fresh voice that will listen to our complaints and make sure that people are heard, and that they feel compassion.

I want to start a fund for people that have discrimination cases so that if they want to go to train in other places, that they can, that we can prioritize them to get new jobs and new training. It is so important that we hear people and we help people. And that’s what I’ve always done in all of my elected service, when I’ve served on the Bend-La Pine School Board for almost a decade and in the state legislature, is make sure that people are heard. And we can do that, and we can do it efficiently.

What we need is technology. We all know that everywhere in Oregon’s government the technology is so far behind. We run on COBOL, which is a program from the 80s.

Miller: This was obviously a huge issue when it came to the employment department and getting checks out.

Helt: Yeah. And so what I want to do is really circumvent that issue by doing some public private partnerships. I think it can be efficient on time use, it can help staff, because the people that are working at BOLI are working their hardest. And we got to find out what tools they need. And my guess is when I get there people are going to say “we need a new computer system that’s updated,” because not to be able to assign cases seems like a technology problem. And we also can fix that quickly and efficiently, I believe, by instilling the right programs and helping-

Miller: You’re saying that you could quickly and efficiently put in an entirely new computer program at this state agency? I guess I’m asking this question with an obvious level of skepticism only because in the last 10 year history of state government in Oregon, I can’t think of an example where that’s happened.

Helt: Dave, I’m not running to do anything that’s been done in the last 10 years. I want to be clear, I’m running to change and bring a fair and balanced approach, create opportunities for Oregon workers, and make sure that we can get that done. I’ve already met with a third party that builds workforce apprenticeship programs. They build dashboards. We can create dashboards to make sure that apprenticeships are able to apply efficiently and quickly, and connect them with our K-12 system so that our youth has opportunities immediately.

This is not a problem that we need to take years to solve. We can do this immediately with meeting with software engineers, and make public private partnerships to make this happen. I think we can at least make a system that can assign the cases, because each case is going to be assigned to someone who specializes in that form of law, right? So we know who’s going to take the cases, and we can immediately assign those through technology. And then we can spend our time communicating with people and solving the problems and issues that they have, and listening.

Miller: I want to turn to the ways in which, for both of you, your own work experiences have defined or shaped the way you view the job that you’re asking voters to put you into. Christina Stephenson first, my understanding is that you normally represent employees in your legal practice, people who are alleging unfair labor practices or discrimination or seeking back pay. Those situations seem inherently adversarial, by the time someone would come to you, it’s because they haven’t been able to work things out with their employer. What can you tell voters to help them understand that you wouldn’t just be at BOLI on employees’ sides?

Helt: I have spent many years representing employees. I’ve also helped small businesses comply with these very same rules through the Bureau of Labor and Industries. I am a business owner myself, and have to comply with these same rules. I grew up in Washington County where my family owned a business for 30 years in the community as well. So I think that the tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent with the law that is enforced by this agency on behalf of both employers and employees really is the reason why I have received the endorsement of the last five labor commissioners, Democrat and Republican, the Independent Party, the Oregonian, Willamette Week, over 125 organizations and elected officials. People across the spectrum, in both business and labor, understand that I can get the job done here.

Miller: Cheri Helt, in a sense the question for you is the opposite one. As the co-owner of a restaurant in Bend for nearly 20 years, what can you tell to voters who might think that based on that employer experience, you would come to this job from the perspective of an employer?

Helt: So the experience that I bring that I think is really important, I’d like to give you an example from when the pandemic started. Overnight, on March 16 we had 104 employees, and on March 17 we were closed down, lost 90% of our sales, and went down to 12 employees. That was a very unstable time. What my husband and I did was not worry necessarily about the rent that we were going to have to pay. But what we prioritized was taking money out of our savings to pay for the health insurance for our employees for the next three months, because we knew that we were going into a health care crisis and that our employees could need their health care insurance, and would not, we would not be able to pay that once they went on unemployment. And back then, we thought it would be for three months.

So that is the type of experience and the type of person I am, and the type of solutions that I like to bring. I like to bring out of the box solutions. And I have a lifetime of experiencing problem solving. When I was on the school board, we had overcrowded schools. And so we brought forward bonds, when I was a chair of the school board, to build four schools. We built a brand new high school, middle school, and two elementary schools. We had outdated textbooks that were going to cost $5 million to fix for one 8th grade science textbook. So what we did was we brought in a new administrator to oversee technology, and that administrator was able to scale up to where we have iPads in every single one of our kids’ hands so that we could get rid of paying for outdated textbooks.

When I was in the Legislature, I helped pass the Paid Family Leave Act. I also proposed solutions to not delay the Paid Family Leave Act because I couldn’t imagine that we would do that during a pandemic. That cost the taxpayers $453 million in benefits in Oregon alone. I have a long history of solving problems and solutions.

I am not endorsed by the last commissioners, and I have no interest in doing that, because I don’t want to do anything that has been done before. I want to make sure that we uphold this agency and we bring the change that Oregonians need. And I am excited to be endorsed by the change candidates, Christine Drazen and Betsy Johnson. I think that’s really important that Oregon sees change. We need a new direction, We need a fresh look. We need customer service inside of the Bureau of Labor and Industry Commission, and we need to make sure that our employees are getting the results they need, because they’re not right now.

Miller: Christina Stephenson, how will you ensure that the bureau you hope to lead is ready for the next pandemic?

Stephenson: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think this is an agency that really flies under the radar sometimes. People don’t know about it until they interact with it. And the issues that were top of mind for Oregonians during the pandemic, they actually fell squarely within BOLI. For example, when schools closed in 2020, BOLI clarified administrative rules under the Oregon Family Leave Act, so that parents juggling schools closing and childcare responsibilities could take protected time off. And when hundreds of workers were getting sick from COVID and they reported health and safety concerns to OSHA, BOLI was there to ensure they couldn’t be retaliated against by their employer for raising those health and safety concerns. And as we’ve gone forward, we were dealing with things like wildfires. And again, BOLI issued temporary administrative rules that allowed workers protected leave if they were on a level two or three emergency evacuation.

So whether it’s ice storms, power outages, hazardous air like we have today, or the next pandemic, I think Oregonians should be able to rely on BOLI to continue to be responsive and effective, so that both employers know their responsibilities and employees know their rights. That’s the next phase of where we want to go, is increasing that communication so that everyone understands their rights and everybody understands their responsibilities.

Miller: Sheri Helt, what about you? How has the pandemic affected the way you think about the role of the Bureau of Labor and Industry?

Helt: Well, first off, we need to make sure that we have a fair and balanced approach. And right now, there is not a lot of balance inside of the BOLI department. We need to make sure that there are business owners at the table making rules, and for the laws that are passed through the legislature. And right now, there are not small business owners on those committees. And I am endorsed and working with small business owners. I was at a debate yesterday, that my opponent pulled out, by the Chambers. It’s very important to me that we are listening to our small businesses and make sure they’re represented.

But one of the things that I think is most important is that we are preparing a labor force with a vision. And I’m coming to this office to put forward a vision. I think one of the reasons this agency has failed is people have used it for a political stepping stone, and that’s not what I want to do. I’m bringing a vision that I want to put forward around getting the apprenticeships built up in the labor force that we need. I want to connect a bridge from our career centers in our high schools into high wage paying apprenticeships. And I want to expand out those apprenticeships. I want to make sure we have healthcare apprenticeships. Down in Asante, I met with them yesterday, they are 450 nurses short. We need to make sure that we have some apprenticeships around healthcare to support these nurses that are struggling. We need chip making apprenticeships, which we do not have, and BOLI has not created. We have seen jobs lost to other states in the tune of $135,000 per job because we have not put these apprenticeships in place.

We also need childcare apprenticeships, and I’ve already worked with our childcare hub in central Oregon to talk about what those apprenticeships would look like. I have a vision. I’m ready to implement that vision, and we need the training. The labor force has spoken, they want to be retrained. And now it is BOLI’s time to invest the money that we have into Oregonians, and create opportunities for Oregon workers and inspire our youth. Get our youth apprenticeship programs started like Wisconsin has and North Carolina, where they’re doing 20,000 apprenticeships. We’re doing very, very few apprenticeships for our youth, and we can change this immediately.

So that’s what I want to do to get us ready for the next pandemic or recession that’s coming our way, is make sure that the training opportunities are there, and that we’re building a workforce for our future, not our past.

Miller: Christina Stephenson, I want to give you a chance briefly to describe your vision for apprenticeships in Oregon.

Stephenson: I want to let folks understand that it wasn’t $120 million that went into BOLI, it’s $20 million that was allocated for apprenticeships in healthcare, manufacturing, and pre-apprenticeship programs in construction, health care and manufacturing.

What we want to do is make sure that we are having a dedicated K-12 partnership so we can go as far upstream as possible to keep people in the workforce, get them into these pre-apprenticeship programs, 16, 17 year olds, we have these existing apprenticeship programs, and then make sure that they have a seamless pathway into apprenticeship programs of their choice, so they don’t have to graduate and then go get more schooling in order to get into these apprenticeships. I mean it’s a beautiful model, they earn while they learn, they don’t come out with a ton of debt. We saw this in Jackson County where there’s a firefighter shortage, it doubled its staff during this critical shortage due to a new firefighting apprenticeship program at BOLI. We have apprentice programs in behavioral health and childcare, and of course your tried and true apprenticeship programs for electricians, plumbers, in the construction field.

So it’s really about making sure that our kids know about this. We know that right now in Oregon, 95% of the open jobs don’t require a college degree. And so let’s get our kids into this pathway.

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