Interview with Bruce Starr for labor commissioner

Bruce Starr was interviewed by phone Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012.

Q. Why do you believe you're qualified for the job of labor commissioner?

A. I've got a small business background, and I think that's really important that folks elect statewide leaders that understand the challenges of Oregon's small businessmen and women - those that are working hard to create jobs in our state. I've got that perspective, and I understand the challenges that business people face. And I look at the Bureau of Labor and Industries as a place that needs to cooperate, collaborate with Oregon's business owners so that they can invest time, energy and money, not in navigating bureaucracy but in growing their company.

And I'm interested in being Oregon's next labor commissioner so that I can simplify the rules to make it easier to for businesses to comply, protect employees - we're not talking about reversing or relaxing rules - we're talking about making it easier for employers to abide by them. In doing that, we can put Oregonians back to work. That's the goal - to lower Oregon's unemployment rate. It shouldn't be acceptable to any statewide elected official that Oregon has higher than the national average in unemployment for more than a decade.

Q. Do you have any ideas, specifically, what regulations need to be simplified that are within the power of the labor commissioner?

A. I think there are a number of them. One specific one: is today three different rules that apply as it relates to final paychecks. If an employee gives an employer more than 48 hours notice, its one set of rules. If the employee gives the employer less than 48 hours, there's another set of rules. And then there's another set of rules if the employee is discharged or fired. At the end of the day that seems like that's crazy to me and we should have basically a rule that says we're going to make sure that employees are paid what they're owed when they leave a person's employment.

The other issue is the penalties if an employer misses those final paychecks: for instance, if they don't pay an employee for one dollar of unused vacation time - depending on when an employer learns of that mistake, the penalty is up to 240 hours of back pay. So we need to simplify the rules. We need to make it - the penalties commiserate with the charge that's being leveled against an employer.

I will say is that I will work with the stakeholder community that are engaged in these issues day in and day out. And we'll identify others - working collaborately with folks on both sides of the political spectrum - with folks on the labor and the business side just like I've done in the Legislature. I've had a successful time in the Legislature working across the aisle bringing stakeholders together, identifying challenges and solving problems.

Q. It sounds like your focus is on business. Is that a correct assessment? The labor commissioner does have other (responsibilities) to enforce - other workplace issues.

A. Well, that's not my focus. My focus is on putting Oregonians that are out of work back to work. That's my focus. That'll be - if we're successful as Oregon's next labor commissioner, that'll be the matrix whether or not I believe we are creating a successful agency. Are we putting Oregonians back to work? Are we lowering Oregon's unemployment rate?

That benefits everyone. It benefits people who live in Portland. It benefits people that live in other places in our state, and that'll be the focus that I will have as Oregon's next labor commissioner - putting Oregonians back to work. I can do that collaborately with businesses and property owners. We will enforce the law. Employees that need to be made whole if they were shorted in their pay, if they were taken advantage of in their employment, we will ensure that employees are taken care of and protected. If they're discriminated against, if they're a protected class - how we do that I think is important, but we will enforce the law under my administration. But again, the agency, because of its role in Oregon's economy is so very important, and I'm interested in working to lower Oregon's unemployment rate.

Q. How do you think the current commissioner is doing and what would you do different?

A. For instance, he has not provided employers or landlords specific objective criteria for them to know whether or not they're discriminating on the job or discriminating in public accommodations. They've asked for an objective set of criteria and he hasn't provided it. The bureau has not provided that. We'll work together - again, bringing folks together - all side of the equation together to identify an objective set of criteria so folks know what the rules are so they can abide by the rules. That hasn't happened under this current commissioner. It needs to happen. The agency needs to be operated in a fair and nonbiased fashion. That has to happen, and will when I'm the next commissioner.

Q. The position of labor commissioner is nonpartisan, but the race has become partisan a little bit because labor is lining up mostly behind the current commissioner and (many) business, city commerce interests are lined up with you. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

A. During my time in the Legislature I've had very strong, great relationships with building trades, the trade unions. I'm running against an incumbent and they're not going to go against the incumbent. When I win, we will continue to have strong, good relations with the trades. That will occur. We'll bring everybody together to solve Oregon's problems. The trades want jobs for their members, and that's what I'm going to provide them. The business community understands the role that the Bureau of Labor and Industries has in Oregon's economy.

The incumbent commissioner is the commissioner of the status quo. The status quo is not acceptable when you have higher than the national average in unemployment for more than a decade. When Oregon is 32nd in the country in job creation. When we're No. 3 in the nation in food stamps. These are not acceptable for Oregon, and these are statistics that Oregon has had while he's been the labor commissioner for the last four years. The last four years, Oregon's unemployment rate has been greater than 8 percent. When he started it was 3 percent less than where it is today.

So the business community understands that I've got a vision to help to grow Oregon's economy to put people back to work, and they're lined up behind me for the most part and the trade unions and the unions and the public employee unions are spending $190,000 right now on TV trying to re-elect the incumbent in negative attack ads against me. So, that's just the reality of the race. We'll get through this campaign and on the other side, I'll bring people together and we'll work together to get Oregonians back to work.