Labor Commissioner is referee for business vs. workers
It's Oregon's mystery political job. One of five elected executive offices — alongside governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general.
The position has been around since 1903 — with different names. It has no term limits — one man served 24 years. Four Republicans and three Democrats held the job before it became a non-partisan office with the 1996 election.
The mystery office? Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries, commonly referred to by its acronym as "the BOLI." Often, the job is called by its original name, Labor Commissioner.
The official title has changed several times, with the longest moniker from 1918 to 1930: Oregon Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Inspector of Factories and Workshops.
The current commissioner, Val Hoyle, dropped her re-election bid to run for the 4th Congressional District seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield.
The vacuum left by Hoyle's departure from the race drew three veteran political candidates.
• Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla switched from the Democratic primary for governor to the BOLI race.
• Portland employee rights attorney Christina Stephenson, who placed second in a 2020 run for the House District 33, filed the day after Kulla.
• On the last day to file for office, former Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, jumped into the race.
Rounding out the field are Cornelius forest management businessman Aaron Baca, Aloha banker Brent Barker, Oregon City truck driver Chris Henry, and Greenhorn laborer Robert Neuman.
If one can win more than 50% of the vote in the May 27 primary election, the race is over — there would be no run-off in November. With seven candidates and three with political track records, it's a longshot that the final winner won't be determined in the Nov. 7 general election.
The BOLI job is part workplace referee, part civil rights enforcer, part job training promoter, part government information desk and complaint box.
There's a $31 million budget for the office — not a lot by state government standards. The job pays $77,000 — less than the $98,600 the governor makes and barely twice the $32,839 paid state lawmakers for their officially part-time jobs.
Unlike other offices, it hasn't been a springboard to bigger things. Incumbents have run for governor, U.S. Senator, Oregon Supreme Court Justice, and secretary of state. None has won.
The three most active candidates have been Helt, Kulla and Stephenson.
A restaurateur in Bend, Helt served about 10 years on school boards, and two years in the Oregon House representing Bend.
Helt is a remnant of a vanishing political species that once dominated state politics: the moderate Republican.
Elected to the House from a Democratic-leaning district in 2018, Helt often bumped heads with the GOP caucus — sponsoring legislation for mandatory vaccinations for school children that was opposed by Republicans. When the House GOP caucus walked out to deny a quorum to consider a controversial carbon cap bill, Helt was the only one of 22 Republicans who remained in Salem.
After losing her 2020 re-election bid to now Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, Helt's focus was on maintaining her family business and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking to return to public office, Helt felt she was a good match for the politically moderate electorate in the newly aligned 5th Congressional District. She could win a general election, but winning a closed primary against opponents who are avidly pro-Trump and supported by vaccine skeptics seemed unlikely.
Hoyle's decision to drop her re-election bid for BOLI was an opportunity.
"I liked that BOLI was non-partisan," Helt said. "It fits my experience well. I've been a business owner for 18 years. We've had 103 employees. BOLI has 120. No other candidate has run a business with over 100 employees."
Helt said she'd seen the ups and downs of career and technical training programs as a school board member. She praised Hoyle for realigning programs to better fit with real world job demands in Oregon. Her time in the Legislature gave her a view on how workplace law evolves.
"The office takes all of my hats and combines them into one," Helt said.
Helt rejects the label of conservative in the race, but wants to bring an open and pragmatic approach to the job.
"The job is to uphold the civil rights of all Oregonians," Helt said. "It has to be a fair process and a balanced process. Part of the job is ensuring that everybody knows the rules. This shouldn't be a 'gotcha' agency. I think most employers want to do the right thing. But for the bad actors, I'll enforce the law."
Kulla was the first candidate to sign up for the 2022 Democratic primary for governor when the window to file opened last autumn.
But as more candidates entered the race, the Yamhill County commissioner saw money and attention among Democrats focused on former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, state Treasurer Tobias Read, and, before he was ruled ineligible because of residency requirements, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
In mid-January, Kulla switched to run for BOLI. With Hoyle running for Congress, Kula was briefly the clear frontrunner.
Kulla says the labor commissioner's top priority is ensuring the civil and working rights of workers and people seeking housing are protected.
The commissioner's office has to be a place that proactively gets out information to workers that business owners don't make the rules — and BOLI is a place to get information and if necessary, seek help to resolve disputes.
"But first, they need to know that BOLI exists," Kulla said. "It doesn't matter if there are rules if people don't know about them and who enforces them."
Kulla said relations between businesses and workers that come to BOLI don't have to always be adversarial. As one of the first cannabis licensees in the state, Kulla took part in creating the rules and regulations that would guide the legal marijuana business into the future. Both the state and the growers shared expertise and dispelled inaccurate information.
"It was a great example of the regulators and the regulated listening to each other and finding solutions that worked," Kulla said.
Oregon's economy and workforce are rapidly evolving, Kulla said, with areas such as gig workers and farm workers whose jobs don't fit easily into existing definitions of jobs. BOLI needs to keep both workers and operators in these areas up to date with changes in the rules.
On technical job training, Kulla said he wants to see more cooperation with Oregon employers so that the students who commit to the programs as a path to their post-high school or community college working lives don't just end up with a certificate.
"There has to be a clear path to real jobs at the end," he said.
The day after Kulla filed for BOLI, he was followed by Christina Stephenson, a Democrat and employee rights attorney.
Stephenson has won the backing of at least 21 labor union groups, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Teamsters, along with political action committees for Planned Parenthood and Pro Choice Oregon.
She's been endorsed by Hoyle, and four former BOLIs. Political backers include U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, former Gov. Barbara Roberts, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, retiring U.S. Rep. Peter De-Fazio, D-Springfield, and eight current state lawmakers, along with several local officeholders.
Stephenson says she's had a front row seat to the shortcomings of labor law in Oregon.
"My job has been representing workers getting a raw deal for employers who aren't following the rules," Stephenson said.
Stephenson said BOLI needs to be a resource for both employers and employees so that they know what's right and wrong from the start.
"The law is complicated," she said. "There are a number of different tests — civil rights vs. wage and hour laws, workers compensation, unemployment. Both sides are probably unsure of where they stand. BOLI's role is to help everyone understand rights and responsibilities."
Stephenson said the gig economy in which businesses consider themselves middlemen between customers and contracted workers will be a challenge to define in labor law. So will the evolving status of farm workers.
"It's up to the Legislature to make the laws," she said.
That may mean taking a step like California to legally define the status of gig workers as employees or something else.
"What everyone wants and needs is clarity and simplicity," Stephenson said.
BOLI's role in job and technical training is to align students as early as middle school to know their options. Programs have to match employers' needs. The result has to be good jobs that pay a living wage.
Stephenson said she was proud of the support she's received from organized labor, but that didn't mean she would come into the job in an adversarial stance to business.
"Quality jobs, fair housing, fair wages, should all be pretty non-controversial issues," she said. "Our good employers don't want these bad actors breaking the law. It puts them at a competitive disadvantage when someone else is making money through wage theft."
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