Worker-side labor law attorney Christina Stephenson, Oregon’s next labor commissioner, takes office next month. She’ll be in charge of enforcing civil rights and wage and hour laws, overseeing apprenticeship programs, and administering the prevailing wage in construction. The Labor Press called her up after her landslide Election Night victory to learn what’s on the top of her list.
By DON McINTOSH
What will be your first priority when you’re sworn into office in January 2023?
There’s no question that we have challenges in civil rights and wage and hour — quickly working through the those cases. But I’m also just really excited about potential in the apprenticeship program. I want us to strengthen partnerships with K-12 so that we can let kids know about this pathway earlier on. They can earn while they learn and not come out with a ton of debt. With the Future Ready Oregon money that was allocated to BOLI, there’s likely going to be several million dollars still to be allocated. [BOLI is Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, the agency she’ll be in charge of.]
What do you think you’ll do differently than your predecessor?
It’s hard to know, honestly. My perspective is as someone who has utilized BOLI, as an employer to help my friends, and mostly to represent workers. So that’s a very specific perspective that I bring, having spent time with the agency in those ways. I come at the work of the agency as someone who has used it for many years. So that’s the big difference — I may think of questions or ideas through that lens of someone who’s been working with agency in that way.
Okay, let me let me put it another way. I mean, what what changes do you expect to be making?
One of the big pieces that has just only started to come into being is the strategic enforcement initiative. That’s an exciting place for us to start to invest. I mean, literally, they’re still hiring for positions in the proactive investigation unit. We’re actually going to be focusing on places where we know there are repeat violations, bad actors, instead of waiting for things to get worse for workers. I think that that will become an exciting new piece of the work.
You and I have talked about the funding situation and the staff that you’ll have available. How are you going to make the case to the legislature that BOLI needs more staff?
I have been thinking about that quite a lot. And I think we have to make it even clearer for the legislature what it means to investigate a case and just what the trade offs are. You know, if all you want is for a case to be assigned to an investigator, and that is somehow a mark of us meeting our key performance metrics… I think they should understand that there’s a there’s a long gulf between something being assigned and someone investigating the case, talking to witnesses, looking at documents, doing subpoenas, doing site visits. So laying that out to the legislature and saying, “Is this is this what you want?” “Is all you want for this to have somebody’s name on it, and then nothing happen to it for 365 days, until it’s administratively dismissed? Is that the expectation?” And if it’s not, you know, this is what it takes to perform an investigation. This is how many hours it takes. And this is how many hours there are in a day. And we’ll just do the math. You know, there’s the human capacity and then there’s the technological capacity, which is a separate but related issue—making sure we have the technical infrastructure that will help the investigators do the work they need to do, making sure that employers understand their responsibilities and employees know their rights. That’s another huge part of the job to make sure we’re fulfilling the mission.