An attorney and a former state lawmaker are vying for the opportunity to lead the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. The office is a civil rights watchdog that enforces various laws, trains employers on those laws and investigates civil rights violations in workplaces, housing and public accommodations.
The labor commissioner would manage an agency with a $35 million budget, more than 100 employees, and oversight over part of Future Ready Oregon, the $200 million plan aimed at bolstering the state workforce by training and preparing workers.
Seven people ran in the primary election to replace current labor commissioner Val Hoyle.
Attorney Christina Stephenson received 46.9% of the vote during the May election, under the 50% threshold needed to avoid a two-person runoff. Former state lawmaker Cheri Helt came in second with 20% of the votes.
More about the candidates:
Helt is a restaurateur and former state lawmaker from Bend with a degree in psychology from Michigan State. She moved to Oregon with her husband, Steve, 18 years ago, according to her website.
Helt did not respond to a request for an interview for this story from the Statesman Journal before deadline, but in a previous interview with the Statesman, she cited her experience as a legislator, business owner and school board member as her qualifications.
She was a member of Bend-La Pine School Board for nine years, during which she helped pass Measure 98 in 2016.
“We now have a designated line item in our budget for career and technical education to high schools,” Helt said.
She also pointed to her experience running a restaurant that employs 60 people and noted her success managing that business during the COVID-19 pandemic when regulations frequently shifted.
On her website, Helt promises to “vigorously defend workers’ civil rights and right to receive fair pay for their hard work. Work to fully and quickly implement paid family medical leave, which Cheri helped pass in the Legislature.” And she promises to “strengthen and expand access to apprenticeship programs.”
Helt has been endorsed by Oregon’s former Secretary of State Bev Clarno and former state Rep. Knute Buehler, of Bend, along with the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Christina Stephenson is a small business owner and civil rights attorney. Born and raised in Oregon, she said she is running because she believes “Oregon should be the best place to live, work and own a business in this country.”
Stephenson said she has worked with BOLI for over a decade on behalf of employers and employees.
“I have the expertise and track record that’ll help me get things done,” she said.
Stephenson added that as a civil rights lawyer, she represents workers “who are getting a raw deal from employers that don’t follow the rules,” and helps small businesses comply with those same rules and regulations. She said she hopes to continue defending workers.
Working families and small businesses are struggling with rising costs, requiring a laser focus on how the state can help businesses grow and create the jobs that are going to allow Oregonians to find a good-paying job, earn a raise and keep up with inflation, Stephenson said.
“I want to make sure that we are investing in our apprenticeship program so that we can staff our schools, our construction sites and our hospitals and I want to make sure that we’re enforcing law. Make sure everyone can access their rights and empowering our employers by giving them the tools they need to comply with the rules,” she said.
Stephenson said she also wants to strengthen partnerships with other state agencies. Oregon has lots of touch points where businesses interact with different agencies, providing opportunities for the state to educate businesses about the offerings of BOLI, she explained.
Strengthening partnerships could better inform the business community about what BOLI can offer, she added.
Her endorsements include current labor commissioner Hoyle, several lawmakers and unions such as PCUN, the Oregon State Police Officers’ Association, Oregon State Firefighters Council and the Oregon AFL-CIO.