BOLI head: Oregon labor law enforcement needs fix

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If you’re an Oregon worker who’s been ripped off by your employer — cheated out of wages, overtime pay, or sick pay — you can file a complaint with Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). But right now your complaint is likely to sit for six months before it’s even assigned to an investigator, and then take four more months to be resolved.

As of January, BOLI was reporting a backlog of 3,200 wage and hour claims and 1,260 civil rights claims. In other words, that many complaints were waiting to be assigned to an investigator.

Oregon Labor Commissioner Christina Stephenson — elected with union support in 2022 to take charge of BOLI — admits her 121-year-old agency is falling short.

“When I talk about challenges facing the agency, I’m talking about challenges to enforcing the rights of workers in Oregon,” Stephenson told union stewards and staff at the Jan. 26 Oregon Labor Law Conference.

BOLI is responsible for enforcing laws on minimum wage, overtime, child labor, civil rights, prevailing wage, and apprenticeship. But the agency’s performance has suffered for decades from inadequate funding and staffing levels. Staff peaked at about 215 workers in the 1980s. Today BOLI has about half that, even though the number of workers in Oregon has nearly doubled.

Stephenson is now in her second year in office, but she’s still working with a budget that was developed before she arrived. The Oregon Legislature funds state agencies on a two-year cycle, and Stephenson won’t get to deliver her own budget proposal until late this year — for lawmakers to consider in 2025.

Lawmakers did increase BOLI’s budget 9.6% last year, an increase that included funding for three additional staff in BOLI’s Wage and Hour Division (bringing its total to 45). But by phone Feb. 7, Stephenson told the Labor Press that BOLI had to lose a few positions in exchange for the several positions it gained.

“I think it is really important for us to be able to start articulating the impact on real people,” Stephenson said.

The Oregon Legislature has added to BOLI’s responsibilities in recent years, passing laws requiring paid sick leave and fair scheduling practices at retailers, and setting up a grant program to start new apprenticeship programs. But lawmakers didn’t add more staff.

Numbers-wise, one of the BOLI’s most dramatic failures is in its apprenticeship division. BOLI is responsible for making sure state-registered apprenticeship programs comply with certain minimum quality standards. When a new apprenticeship program is established, BOLI is supposed to do an in-person on-site compliance review every year for the first three years, then follow-up reviews every three to five years. As of October 2023, BOLI was reporting a 97.5% backlog for those compliance reviews, meaning reviews for almost all of the state’s 154 apprenticeship programs were overdue.

Though the numbers are daunting, Stephenson told Oregon Labor Law Conference attendees that BOLI is making progress reducing the caseload backlogs. She’s also used her discretion to insist that agents seek penalties when employers are found to have broken the law. Often in the past, BOLI settled charges when an employer agreed to pay what it owed workers.

Stephenson won’t be asking for more money for staff in the month-long legislative session that began Feb. 5, but she’s seeking funding for new case management and public records software. She also wants permission to use $631,000 in unspent federal COVID relief funds to hire nine temporary compliance specialists to cut down that backlog on apprenticeship compliance reviews. She estimates the extra staff could conduct 85 compliance reviews over an eight month period.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is unbelievable. I worked for a grocery store for 46 years, I wrote to BOLI many times of this company handling of stealing overtime pay, sick pay, and taking over 7 months to pay you for workman’s comp claim …No one is looking out for us workers; COMPANIES HAVE THE MONEY, TO MAKE YOU SUFFER..UNTIL you just give up… Sad…

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