IBEW's Gardner puts 'labor' back into labor commissioner's office

Labor is about to return to the office of the Oregon labor commissioner - so declares Dan Gardner, who will be sworn into office Monday, Jan. 6.

"Putting labor back into the labor commission" was Gardner's theme throughout his election campaign, which ended in the May primary when he garnered more than 50 percent plus one of the votes in a three-way non-partisan race.

A former vice president and still dues-paying member of Portland Electrical Workers Local 48, Gardner, 44, has served as a Democratic state representative from Portland's District 13 for the last six years.

He succeeds two-term Labor Commissioner Jack Roberts, who opted to run for governor - losing in the Republican primary.

During his eight-year tenure, Roberts tried to eliminate the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), going so far as introducing a bill in the 2001 session of the Legislature to have it folded into the Department of Business and Consumer Services. His bill failed.

Still, during that time span Roberts cut BOLI 29 percent, reducing its staff from 159 to 108 employees, including mid-level managers and investigators responsible for child labor and farming. BOLI offices were closed in Bend, Coos Bay and Pendleton. Offices remain in Portland, Salem, Eugene and Medford.

The agency has a biennial budget of approximately $19 million. Roughly $12 million of that is general fund money and the remainder comes from assessments and fines generated by the Wage and Hour Fund and Workers Benefit Fund.

Now, with the state in the midst of a huge budget crunch, the governor has asked all agencies to cut at least 10 percent from their 2003-05 budgets. That number could double depending on what voters do Jan. 28 in a special election to temporarily raise income tax rates. Current polling suggests the measure will fail.

"Another 10 to 20 percent cut will decimate the agency, especially after all the cuts it's made voluntarily," said Gardner. "No state agency has been cut that radically and that deeply over the last nine years."

Why should Oregonians care what happens to BOLI? Most folks know little about the agency and what it does. But BOLI can have an impact on every worker in the state.

The Bureau of Labor was created by the Legislature in 1903 to oversee the rapidly developing industrial workplace and to protect workers, especially minors and women. The first labor commissioner, O.P. Hoff, was appointed by the Board of Control under Democratic Governor George Chamberlain. As the only employee, Hoff was responsible for enforcing child labor laws, the 10-hour working day for women and factory inspections.

In 1906 the position became an elected office and Hoff was the first person voted into the office. Gardner is the eighth labor commissioner since 1903.

As BOLI developed, its role expanded to include inspection of mills, factories and schools and to enforce pay regulations and help workers collect wages. Today, the bureau's stated mission is to "promote the development of a highly skilled, competitive workforce in Oregon through partnerships with government, labor, business, and education."

The commissioner has several major responsibilities. As the chief executive, Gardner will be responsible for coordinating and managing the various divisions. He will serve as chair of the State Apprenticeship and Training Council, as the executive secretary of the Wage and Hour Commission, and he also will sit on the Oregon Council on Civil and Human Rights.

As chair of the State Apprenticeship and Training Division, Gardner will oversee the state's apprenticeship and training system, which provides workers with the opportunity to learn a job skill while earning a living. The apprenticeship system also benefits employers by providing them with a pool of skilled workers to meet business and industry demands.

As executive secretary of the Wage and Hour Division, he will administer state laws relating to wages, hours of employment, basic working conditions, child labor and prevailing wage rates, and license certain industries to ensure quality services.

The division administers the Wage Security Fund, which pays workers for wages earned but not paid in certain business closure situations, and enforces group-health insurance termination-notification provisions.

As a member of the Oregon Council on Civil and Human Rights, the commissioner is charged with enforcing the state's civil rights laws, investigating civil rights complaints, and advising and educating workers about their civil rights.

Through the Office of Administrative Services, the commissioner provides public education programs to help employers comply with the law and conducts administrative hearings. The office also includes a number of support functions such as budget and fiscal control.

Since his election, Gardner has been busy mapping out plans for the agency. He told the Northwest Labor Press that he will be more proactive in investigating child and farm labor and civil rights cases.

"Right now BOLI is more complaint-driven," he said. "Most of our civil rights investigations are done over the phone. I would like to see more face-to-face interaction.

"We will be fair, but we won't be bashful about enforcing full compliance of the law," he said. Gardner, who will act as BOLI's lobbyist at the Legislature, said he will introduce legislation this year to end the farmworker exemption for lunch and rest periods.

He will look at how prevailing wage surveys are conducted, and hold meetings with labor and management to determine if there might be an easier, more efficient way to collect data that is fair and accurate for both.

Gardner has talked with Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect Susan Castillo about holding seminars for high school career counselors in order to showcase apprenticeship training programs such as those of the Electricians, Plumbers and Fitters, and Sheet Metal Workers, so that students not inclined to go to college can be steered toward the trades.

Gardner also wants to help joint apprenticeship and training committees find ways to attract more minorities and women into their programs.

He would like to see - and will strongly advocate this legislative session - the Building Codes Division of the Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) become part of BOLI. "I'm not empire building, it's simply a natural fit," he said, explaining that apprenticeship training, especially among the licensed crafts, are overseen by BOLI, then once apprentices reach journey status they are handed off to DCBS for continuing education. He said funds could be saved by streamlining the operations of the two agencies.

Gardner also plans to enlist the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon to help conduct seminars for employees on their rights at work. "We want them to know their real rights under the law, not what's talked about at the water cooler," he said.

January 3, 2003 issue

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