By DON McINTOSH
Christina Stephenson, an employee-side civil rights attorney, announced Jan. 18 she’s running for Oregon Labor Commissioner. The announcement likely comes as a relief to Oregon labor leaders.
Labor Commissioner is responsible for enforcing wage and hour, prevailing wage, apprenticeship, and civil rights laws as head of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), but it can sometimes be hard to attract candidates to run for the job. That’s because the agency has been perennially underfunded, and its director has the lowest salary of any statewide elected office: $77,000.
But for Stephenson, 38, it’s a dream job. Speaking to the Labor Press by phone just before filing, Stephenson said she was already keeping a “to-do” list of things she wished BOLI would do. Then Congressman Peter DeFazio announced his retirement Dec. 1 after 36 years in Congress, and Oregon’s current labor commissioner Val Hoyle—a longtime former state legislator from DeFazio’s district—announced she’d run for his seat. Stephenson was interested in the job of labor commissioner, but she waited, thinking a better known candidate might announce. Now, six weeks later, with the encouragement of friends in the labor movement, she’s entering the race for the non-partisan seat.
“I think this is an agency that needs stability,” Stephenson said. “It needs someone who is doing this work because they deeply care about the work.”
Stephenson is well known in labor circles, having worked behind the scenes to help draft important union-backed legislation, including Oregon’s fair scheduling law, a law requiring employers to have policies to report discrimination and sexual assault, and a law putting the burden of proof on the employer if a worker is fired after filing an OSHA complaint. She also had a role in writing a bill, not yet passed, that would increase BOLI’s enforcement capacity.
In 2020, Stephenson ran for House District 33 and had a dozen union endorsements, including the backing of the Oregon AFL-CIO and the state building trades, but she lost to physician Maxine Dexter after taking second place in a four-way primary race.
A lifelong Oregonian, Stephenson grew up in unincorporated Washington County and attended Hillsboro High School. She graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., and from University of Oregon law school.
Since she began her law practice in 2009, Stephenson estimates she’s spent 30,000 hours fighting for workers. As an attorney, she has represented workers in whistleblower cases, family and medical leave cases, and injured workers who were retaliated against for filing workers compensation claims.
Now, if she wins the race for labor commissioner, she would oversee a staff of 130 to enforce Oregon labor laws.
Among her priorities, Stephenson said she wants to elevate the apprenticeship model. She would also revise the procedures BOLI agents follow to improve enforcement.
“There’s plenty of work to be done. I don’t want to over promise, knowing that we’ve got enormous structural disinvestment in the agency. But I do think if we use data a little bit better, we can prioritize really high-complaint industries.”
Other candidates could enter the race before the March 8 filing deadline, but so far, state election records show just two others have filed. Chris Henry is a truck driver and member of Teamsters Local 81, an activist in the Oregon Progressive Party, and former co-chair of the Pacific Green Party. Robert Neuman is a laborer from rural Eastern Oregon.