Val Hoyle — a former Oregon House Majority Leader and Democratic state representative from Eugene — was named Oregon AFL-CIO “Legislator of the Year” in 2011. She gave up her legislative seat in 2016 to run for secretary of state, but failed to win the Democratic primary.
This year, probably no candidate on the ballot in Oregon has worked as hard and as successfully to court support from organized labor. Getting her elected as labor commissioner is a top priority for organized labor, because the labor commissioner oversees the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). BOLI enforces wage and hour and civil rights laws, sets the prevailing wage on public construction projects, and oversees apprenticeship training standards — all things that are vitally important to unions and to working people.
Hoyle comes from a union family. Her grandfather was active in the Laborers union in New York. Her father was a union fire fighter and the president of IAFF Local 789 in Nashua, New Hampshire. Hoyle was once a member of UNITE HERE Local 26 in Boston, working as a restaurant server. In college she worked as a lobbyist for Massachusetts building trades unions. She moved to Oregon to work for the Burley bike trailer company, a worker-owned coop.
Her opponents? Union County Commissioner Jack Howard is on the ballot, but isn’t campaigning and didn’t even submit a Voters’ Pamphlet statement. So her chief opponent is Tualatin mayor and insurance agent Lou Ogden — a Republican who thinks the Bureau of Labor and Industries has leaned too much toward labor and not enough toward industry. On April 23, four deep-pocketed Republican funders dumped $100,000 into his campaign, which began airing television attack ads against Hoyle a week later. Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with her by phone about her background and her ideas for BOLI.
What have you been doing since 2016?
I’ve been working at the University of Oregon at the Wayne Morris Center for Law and Politics.
And what do you do there?
I work with students who want to make a difference in public policy, helping them get internships, doing some fund-raising, talking to students.
Why do you want to become labor commissioner?
Because the labor commissioner job encompasses all the things that I not only am passionate about but that I’ve done over the past three decades. It’s standing up for workers rights, civil rights. In addition to being a former union member, I have also been in the private sector for 25 years, so I’d make sure that the technical assistance program actually reaches out and gives businesses the information they need to be able to follow the rules. And I’d make sure the career and technical education pipeline fits into the apprenticeship and job training programs for the jobs that are needed. I really like that stuff. It’s what I’ve done. And so it’s one job with everything that I care about all wrapped up in it.
I think a lot of people don’t know what labor commissioner does. What do you see the job as doing specifically?
You investigate and enforce labor laws and civil rights in the workplace, and certify the apprenticeship programs in the state. The Legislature passes labor laws, and BOLI works on the rulemaking. So it’s a critical job. You don’t want to have someone that’s anti-worker overseeing it. It’s also important to have someone that has a good working relationship with business. I am a strong supporter of labor. I consider myself a labor Democrat. And businesses trust me to be fair. Besides labor, civil rights, the technical assistance program [advising business on compliance] BOLI also certifies the apprenticeship programs in the state. And I actually think that one of the things [current labor commissioner] Brad Avakian did well was work on being a strong supporter of expansion of apprenticeship and Career and Technical Educational programs in the schools.
What would you do differently, if anything, from Brad?
I just think I have a different style of leadership. I have a very collaborative style of leadership. I mean, I have no problem standing up for what’s right, but I tend to do it working with other people. So again, with my private sector background, I could work with business in bringing them to the table. I would work to expand technical assistance program. I think we can do a better job of making sure all workers, regardless of what language they speak, feel like they can contact BOLI, and making sure that we’re out where workers are, and that workers feel like this is an agency that is focused on customer service. The other thing is making sure that we have the resources in that department in BOLI that does investigation and enforcement of the labor rules, because right now it’s not good for business or workers when they have to wait 18 months to two years for an investigation and a fine to be levied. But there’s a limit limited amount of resources for that particular part of the agency, and I went to get more resources there.
That has been my sense for quite some time: that quite frankly they’re severely understaffed. Where do you think BOLI needs to improve?
I have strong working relationships with the Legislature on both sides, and I think I’d be able to advocate for funding very well. Investigation and enforcement of workplace rules and labor rules is critical. And so is ensuring that the pipeline that we have for career and technical education feeds in seamlessly to the pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs that are available, and making sure that we have programs that are preparing our kids for the jobs of the future, whatever those are. The job market is going to be different in 20 years than it is now, and we should be training people for those jobs.
How many investigators does BOLI have now?
No idea. Not enough. It’s a big issue, because I’ve talked with both business and labor representatives and they say it can take 18 months to two years to complete an investigation. And all that time you’ve got this big fine that’s hanging over a business, or a worker is not getting compensated or having their issue addressed. That’s just too long. I’ve talked to a number of people that work at BOLI. They say we need to be able to have the resources to do this job well and to do it efficiently and in a timely fashion.
I’ve had the sense that BOLI has a practice of not pursuing penalties to the fullest extent of the law; it seems like they tend to cut a break or levy a smaller than fine then they have the authority to. Do you have any opinion about that?
I don’t know.
How big a problem do you think wage theft is in Oregon?
I think that the majority of businesses follow the rules. Then there are these bad actors that don’t follow the rules but are also really good at making it hard to find. I don’t think any business that’s following the rules should have to compete against someone that isn’t — that isn’t paying wages, that is engaging in wage theft. But it takes more time and effort to investigate those businesses that are violating the law in the shadows. I would definitely focus on that, and I think it’s important for workers, because usually the workers that are the victims of wage theft are the ones that have the least ability to fight back. For a variety of reasons these are vulnerable members of the workforce. The bottom line is: These employers that are taking peoples wages and cutting these corners are unfairly competing with people that are following the rules.
Do you have any specific ideas or plans for how to address it?
Yeah. I think ensuring that we have people who are able to go out in the field and talk to people, and having an open door with some of the businesses that have said, “I want you to catch those other people.” So proactive enforcement, as opposed to waiting for someone to pick up the phone to make the call.