Tactics: Christina Stephenson on Getting BOLI to Work

Jason E. Kaplan

The commissioner-elect of the Bureau of Labor and Industries steps into her new role this month. In November we asked: What’s the plan?

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Christina Stephenson starts a new job this month.

In November Oregon voters selected Stephenson to lead the Bureau of Labor and Industries, which oversees labor practices throughout the state, investigating wage-theft claims as well as discrimination claims involving public accommodations. The race is nonpartisan, but Stephenson, a labor lawyer, was endorsed by a host of labor unions — including the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the Oregon Nurses Association— as well as other progressive organizations and prominent Democrats. But she is quick to emphasize her business bona fides: Weekends and summer vacations were spent helping her parents at work, and in 2014, when her son was just 3 months old, she went into business for herself “at my kitchen table.”

Most recently a partner at Meyer Stephenson, she says her career has involved a combination of representing employees and advising small businesses on workplace law.

Shortly after the election results were certified, Oregon Business spoke with Stephenson about her background, her plan for the position and the road ahead for Oregon’s economy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your background is in employment law. What got you interested in overseeing BOLI?

I’m just a bit of a nerd. I am the person who would see things on BOLI’s website that were out of date and email them and say, “Oh, you know, this is wrong.” It’s a resource that I use quite a bit, especially for the small businesses that I helped counsel, because the resources and technical assistance put out are really outstanding. I just kind of had a running to-do list of things that I thought, “Well, gosh, can we make this easier? Can we make this simpler? Can we make this more accessible?” When the opportunity presented itself, it felt like a really natural place, because of my really specific and unique experience. It’s spending tens of thousands of hours with the law that’s enforced but also being a business owner myself now. I’m having to comply with those same rules myself, knowing how it really needs to be as simple and accessible as possible, just to set people up for success.

BOLI investigates complaints, wage-theft claim, civil rights claims. There is a reported backlog of about 1,200 civil rights claims that have not been assigned to an officer. What’s your plan for addressing that?

My predecessor, Commissioner Val Hoyle, was successful in getting an increase in funding for investigators, and I’m hearing that those folks are starting to be able to come online. It takes time between the budget and hiring and getting people onboarded to make a dent in historical backlogs, and I mean, backlogs may have frankly been an issue at this agency for decades. During the campaign, someone sent me a 100-year history of BOLI, and you look at each commissioner’s tenure — there’s backlog in each tenure. So there’s the acute issue of these unassigned complaints, but I don’t want to pretend that this is just a one-time issue.

What we really need to be focusing on is going as far upstream as we can to prevent these complaints from coming through in the first place — by doing better education and outreach to our business community.

Do you think that there’s a problem of business owners not understanding the law, or of bad actors who know what the law is and are just not paying any attention to it?

The last data I saw said that BOLI gets somewhere around 2,000 civil rights complaints a year — or, broad brush, a few thousand. We have literally hundreds of thousands of businesses in Oregon. In terms of the percentage of complaints to the number of businesses working in Oregon, it’s really quite small. I think that when we think about how to deploy the limited resources of the agency, we absolutely want to be focused on the repeat offenders and bad actors, and do things like make sure we check their business model, and do everything that we can to help our small businesses understand the rules. I’m talking checklists, flowcharts, templates — everything to make it really simple for people, especially those that don’t have a dedicated HR department, to just comply with the laws.

What types of relationships do you see BOLI having both with organized labor and with business?

It’s important for us to be able to have as many people at the table as possible, because I just truly believe that we have better outcomes when our hypotheses are tested, when we have input that’s reflecting the diverse experiences and opinions of our state. I want to have people east of the Cascades giving us their feedback and opinions so that all of our blind spots are checked. I’ve run a campaign really focused on honoring that idea that we will work with anybody who’s just willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work. A lot of us in Oregon have just been feeling like the partisanship has pulled us so far apart. And I think a lot of us just want to get back to a place where we can talk to our neighbors, we can have civil discussions, we can disagree. But we can still make progress.

BOLI also oversees the state’s apprenticeship programs, which are a big component of Future Ready Oregon, which passed last year. What’s your vision for kind of overseeing that and for that apprenticeship program?

The Future Ready Oregon package allocated $20 million to BOLI, about $18.9 million of that for grants in preapprenticeship programs in construction, health care and manufacturing; and then apprenticeship programs in health care and manufacturing. The third round of funding will be the only one that is under my purview, and that will be allocated by June 30. I mean, I’ve been very impressed with the ability of the apprenticeship training division to stand up that infrastructure so quickly after the money was allocated. What I really want to focus on is making sure that people know about this money. I can’t tell you how often in my travels I would say, “Hey, have you heard about this opportunity?” and folks had not heard about this opportunity.

Economists are also predicting that there’s likely going to be a recession in the near future. We are already looking at some pretty substantial layoffs in the tech sector. What do you see as BOLI’s role in managing the problems that will come out of that?

The last thing I saw estimated 24,000 jobs will be lost in Oregon. One of the things that I would like us to do — in a recession or not — is have better partnerships with the other state agencies that touch on aspects that BOLI also touches on. Unemployment is certainly one of them, so it’s partly working with the Oregon Employment Department to make sure that there is a pathway for folks who lost a job. One of the options you might consider here is apprenticeship programs, because you actually are paid while you learn. So it’s making sure that we have a really strong partnership there to get people unemployed into these apprenticeship programs. I think we’ll have to do everything that we can to help build the capacity, because we know that even our apprenticeship programs need to deliver many, many more workers in order to meet the needs of business right now.

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