The bottleneck of civil rights and wage claims has decreased, but workers still face long waits for service
By Kaylee Tornay / InvestigateWest
When Christina Stephenson was elected Oregon’s labor commissioner in 2022, she stressed the importance of resolving the backlog of wage and civil rights claims as soon as possible.
“Especially a person who has had their wages stolen, getting them the money that they are owed could be the difference between them making rent, being able to pay for groceries,” Stephenson said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting. “So of course, it is a top concern for us to get these cases through as fast as we possibly can.”
At the time, there were more than 5,000 wage claims and nearly 2,000 civil rights claims waiting to be investigated.
Today, that number has dwindled to around 3,000 wage claims and nearly 1,300 civil rights claims. But Stephenson is asking lawmakers this session for more funding to support the agency’s efforts. Workers sometimes wait a year or more to get justice after experiencing discrimination or having their wages stolen. And a majority of employers don’t even wind up paying what they owe, as InvestigateWest revealed in a recent analysis of wage claim data, which Stephenson cited in a presentation this month to lawmakers.
“This is obviously not what we want,” Stephenson said. “It gives a competitive advantage to employers that don’t play by the rules. This is millions of dollars that aren’t getting back into our economy.”
Officials cite a large uptick in claims filed over the last few years and an outdated system for managing cases as main factors in the civil rights and wage claim backlogs. The pandemic also prevented other labor bureau staff from conducting in-person reviews of Oregon’s apprenticeship programs, as required by federal and state law, to ensure they’re meeting quality standards in training and instruction. Today, 98% of apprenticeships in trades such as electrical and plumbing are overdue for a review.
The Bureau of Labor and Industries is requesting two budget adjustments in the upcoming session to help.
The first request would spend $632,000 of the agency’s unused pandemic relief money on nine temporary positions in the apprenticeship review division. The bureau estimates that it can review 85 apprenticeship programs in eight months with the extra personnel in place. That would be about half of the reviews that are outstanding.
At its Jan. 12 meeting, the Legislature’s appropriations committee approved the labor bureau’s request, increasing its chances of being included in the budget reconciliation.
In addition, the Bureau of Labor and Industries is requesting $160,500 in new funds, which it will combine with $87,500 it already has, to take the first step to replace what agency leaders say is an outdated and inefficient computer system used to track and manage cases. The current system “requires extensive manual data entry, and lacks automation leading to increased workload and errors,” said Rachel Mann, a bureau spokesperson.
The agency has already tried to make parts of its process more efficient to reduce the logjam. In January, the labor bureau changed the online portal that workers use to file civil rights and wage complaints. The new system will help ensure that claims don’t get bogged down because of missing information, Mann said.
The agency has also sought more staff — most recently, the Legislature funded two additional investigators in the wage division.
“The agency is laser focused on increased investments to reduce wait times and provide Oregonians with faster and better service,” Mann said.
But in the long term, Stephenson and legislators agree that funding positions alone isn’t enough to solve the staffing capacity issues. Bureau workers also need to be paid better, they said, to help with retention and recruitment.
A recent study of the civil rights division showed that labor bureau investigators earned anywhere from 16% to 64% less than employees in comparable positions at other state agencies — and the agency’s work is suffering as a result.
“I do think that this has been the way it’s been done for a long time, and so it just requires us to rethink what we’re asking of each of these individuals,” Stephenson said. “If you’re staring down a 3,000 (case) backlog, that’s a difficult place to be when you’re not making much more than you could at Target.”
Legislators have indicated that they’re prepared to help out. Several lawmakers who listened to Stephenson’s pre-session presentations said they agreed that compensation is an important consideration in the effort to reduce backlogs.
“We’ve got a problem area that needs some addressment if we want to deal with this troubling backlog,” said Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast.
Stephenson said the agency will continue to seek ways to work more efficiently aside from adding staff.
“We will persist,” she said.
FEATURED IMAGE: In certain sectors of the construction industry, the labor bureau recovered less than a quarter of owed wages and penalties from employers. (Yury Kim/Pexels)
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Reach reporter Kaylee Tornay at email@example.com.