BOLI runoff pits former state lawmaker against civil rights attorney

There’s at least one point on which the two candidates for commissioner of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries agree: Oregon voters aren’t always familiar with the work of the state agency – which, if you know it at all, you know by its acronym, BOLI.

“This is not the easiest office to run for, just due to the fact that people don’t understand it very much,” said Cheri Helt, one of the two candidates for BOLI commissioner on the Nov. 8 ballot. Helt’s opponent, Christina Stephenson, said she often encounters that sentiment on the campaign trail as well.

So let’s start with a quick primer about BOLI and why voters should care about the office – and about who runs it.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, which dates to 1903, was formed in response to a nationwide surge in industrialization. Democratic Gov. George Chamberlain, concerned that the competing forces of corporate capital and organized labor threatened what he called the “spirit of cooperation” that existed between employers and employees, called in his inaugural address for the creation of the agency to protect workers, especially children. 

Today, BOLI enforces anti-discrimination laws in housing and workplaces across the state. It trains employers on laws governing civil rights protections for workers and regulates and supports apprenticeship programs to develop the state’s workforce.

As of Nov. 1, the race has attracted about $2 million in campaign finance funds, with three-quarters of that raised by Stephenson.

“This is THE important office for workers and employers” in state government, Stephenson said. 

Stephenson and Helt earned their places on the Nov. 8 ballot by finishing as the top two candidates  in the May primary for the nonpartisan post. Under state law, if no candidate in the primary hits 50%, the top two vote-getters advance to a November runoff. Stephenson earned 47.2% in the seven-candidate race, while Helt had 19.2%.

The incumbent, Val Hoyle, opted not to seek reelection to run for the U.S. House in Oregon’s 4th Congressional District.

Here’s where Helt and Stephenson stand on key issues:

Cheri Helt

Helt is blunt in her assessment of the current state of the Bureau of Labor and Industries: “It’s so important that people understand this office, because it’s such a failing agency.”

Helt said BOLI has a backlog of cases in its Civil Rights Department that have yet to be assigned and that it should have been closed so long during the pandemic, only opening this May. 

“I can’t think of a more tumultuous time for workers in Oregon than the pandemic,” Helt said.

And she said the agency has failed to keep pace with the state’s workforce needs. If state government, including BOLI, had been “doing its job, Oregon would have the workforce it needs for the future.”

If elected, she said she would start with an internal audit “to find out what we’re doing best and where we need improvement.” She said she would meet with BOLI employees “to understand their job and what they need.”

In terms of workforce development, she said she would work with stakeholders such as businesses, unions, community colleges, K-12 schools and others to examine Oregon’s training and apprenticeship programs. She said she would launch a BOLI “dashboard” on the agency’s website to offer information about trade professions such as electricians or plumbers – how many openings are available throughout the state, training requirements and average wages. Students entering the trades need the same amount of information as students enrolling in four-year colleges, she said.

But those training programs must be flexible: “Everybody is not going to take a career that’s going to last their entire lifetime,” she said. “So we need to make sure that we have the ability for people to retrain and programs that they want.”

Helt’s background includes service in the Oregon House, where she was considered a moderate Republican, and on the board for the Bend-La Pine School District. “I know what it’s like to get things passed in a bipartisan way,” she said.

Her business experience as co-owner with her husband of Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails in Bend gives her additional perspective that would be useful as BOLI commissioner, she said.

“I think that it’s really important that we have an even hand and that we have stability for our businesses to operate within,” she said. “It’s been a tumultuous time for every Oregonian over the last three years. We need stable, common-sense leadership to bring back balance.”

She also said the state needs to give businesses enough room to take care of their affairs and their employees: 

“All too often we’re sending earthquakes through their walls.”

Christina Stephenson

 Stephenson said serving as the BOLI commissioner would be her “dream job.”

“I’m an employer,” she said. “I’m a civil rights attorney. Those are the core issues for the office.” Even though the job would be her first elected office, she said she’s spent more than a decade and thousands of hours working with the agency.

“I’m the person who goes on to BOLI’s website and says, ‘Oh, you know, that statutory citation is out of date; you have to change that.’”

She added that, as a lifelong Oregonian, “I just believe that Oregon should be the best place to live and work and run a business.”

Stephenson said recent events highlighted the importance of BOLI: During the pandemic, the agency clarified administrative rules so parents who were juggling child care and school closures could take protected leave. During 2020’s wildfire season, BOLI issued temporary rules allowing workers to take leave when their homes were under evacuation orders.

She said BOLI needs to take a bigger role in addressing the state’s workforce shortage by helping to create additional school-to-career pathways and investing in apprenticeship programs to ensure they’re more accessible and cover additional industries.

Stephenson noted that the 2022 legislative session allocated BOLI $20 million for apprenticeship programs as part of a $200 million workforce package. She said the next commissioner will have to ensure that the money is spent wisely and that the investment matches the legislative intent to help Oregon’s rural areas and communities of color.

The agency has struggled for years with a backlog of civil-rights cases, she said, noting that even though Hoyle, the current commissioner, has managed to increase its budget, the agency still has fewer employees than it did in the 1990s.

“Everything should be on the table in terms of how to fix the backlog,” she said.

Stephenson said she might consider a “strategic enforcement” model, in which the agency focuses its resources on what she called “the intentional bad actors, the repeat offenders.”

She acknowledged that the vast majority of Oregon businesses want to do right by their employees. She said BOLI could do a better job clarifying complex issues for employers: “That means making sure our employers have the tools they need so we don’t even get complaints in the first place.”  

If BOLI builds stronger lines of communication with businesses, “then we can help them in those areas where we know they’re having trouble,” she said.

Stephenson is a Democrat, but said she believes the work of BOLI needs to be nonpartisan.

“Moving our economy forward, treating workers with dignity, growing a workforce, those are all nonpartisan issues,” she said.

Cheri Helt

Age: 52

Profession: Restaurant owner

Residence: Bend

Funds raised as of Nov. 1, 2022: $537,000

Cash on hand as of Nov. 1, 2022: $166,000

Key endorsements: Oregon Business & Industry, Oregon School Boards Association, Timber Unity, Oregon Taxpayer Coalition

Christina Stephenson

Age: 39

Profession: Employment attorney

Residence: Unincorporated Washington County

Funds raised as of Nov 1, 2022: $1.5 million

Cash on hand as of Nov. 1, 2022: $168,000

Key endorsements: Former Gov. Barbara Roberts, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon; U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon

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