Voters appear to have picked civil rights attorney Christina Stephenson to serve as the next commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries, a nonpartisan post. Stephenson nearly won the BOLI seat outright in the May primary, but she fell just shy of the majority she needed. That led to a run-off with Cheri Helt, a Bend restaurant owner and former Republican state representative.
Late on Tuesday night, Stephenson’s campaign claimed victory, pointing to a result projected by The Oregonian/Oregonlive. Stephenson released a statement thanking Oregonians for voting and advocating a “shared vision” for the state’s economy.
“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves on day one: expanding apprenticeship and job training opportunities; ensuring small businesses get the support they need; and working through the backlog of potential civil rights and wage violations, so that every Oregon worker can confidently access their rights in the workplace,” said Stephenson. “Oregon should be the best place to live and work in this country, and I’m going to do everything within my power at the Bureau of Labor and Industries to make that a reality.”
Stephenson and Helt identified similar problems at the labor bureau but differed in their approach to solving them.
Both women viewed BOLI’s investigation backlogs as a top concern. The labor bureau is meant to be a civil rights watchdog, investigating Oregonians’ claims of discrimination at work, in housing, or in public accommodations. The agency also examines wage claims, which arise when workers are underpaid or don’t get a final paycheck on time.
The agency has a backlog of roughly 1,200 potential civil rights claims that have yet to be assigned to an intake officer in the Civil Rights division. BOLI said it takes about seven months to investigate civil rights complaints once assigned, and about five months to resolve wage claims.
“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 during the campaign. “So, of course, it is a top concern for us to get these cases through as fast as we possibly can.”
Stephenson said the agency has long been understaffed and underfunded, and that funding increases could help speed investigations. But she also endorsed a model of strategic enforcement. By targeting employers who are repeat offenders, she said, the agency could preserve limited resources while reducing complaint backlogs.
Likewise, Stephenson said the agency should use its own data to identify areas in which employers struggle to uphold the law, so the agency can better educate them.
“If we do more on the technical assistance side, I think we end up with less complaints,” Stephenson said. She noted that beefing up technical assistance staffing could also require additional funding.
Helt rejected the idea of increasing the agency’s budget, which stands at $62 million for the current biennium. That includes nearly $20 million in one-time Future Ready Oregon funds to bolster the state’s apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs.
“I want to be clear that I’m not going to ask for another dollar,” Helt said. “If there’s any money to be spent, I want it to be spent inside of our schools.”
Instead, Helt pledged to immediately launch an internal audit of the agency and to request an outside audit from Oregon’s secretary of state. She promised to meet “every single staff member” and work alongside them. Helt said she would implement a strategic plan to address civil rights cases in a timely manner and make performance metrics public.
BOLI has the additional role of overseeing the state’s registered apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. There were more than 10,000 apprentices training with nearly 6,000 employers as of the summer. Those numbers will likely rise as BOLI awards nearly $20 million in Future Ready Oregon grants to develop more training opportunities in health care, manufacturing, and construction.
During the campaign, both candidates said they would work to expand the kinds of apprenticeships offered in Oregon.
“I’m going to be laser-focused on helping businesses find the workers they need, and helping Oregonians find a good paying job,” Stephenson said.
BOLI commissioner is a non-partisan post, but each candidates’ endorsements reflected their political base. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek endorsed Stephenson, as did labor groups, current BOLI commissioner Val Hoyle and multiple past commissioners.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan and unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson both endorsed Helt, along with some business groups and Timber Unity.