Labor commissioner looks back at decade-long tenure
Brad Avakian says headline-grabbing cases, such as the suit against a Gresham bakery for refusing to supply a cake to a same-sex couple, are what the public may take away from his decade-long tenure as state labor commissioner.
But Avakian said other less-publicized cases by the Bureau of Labor and Industries also made a difference for people.
Avakian spoke at a Washington County Public Affairs Forum luncheon on May 21.
"The press and others made it into something else," he said of the case that stemmed from a 2013 refusal by Sweet Cakes by Melissa to provide a cake for two women to observe their union.
The result was a finding of discrimination based on sexual orientation — Oregon added it to its civil rights law in 2007, when Avakian was a state senator from Beaverton — and an award of $135,000 in damages to the same-sex couple. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the bureau in late 2017, but the Gresham couple — who have paid the amount and shut down their bakery — have asked the Oregon Supreme Court to review the case on free-expression grounds.
"But when I look back on 10 years, I really do not think about those cases," Avakian added.
"Being labor commissioner for the past 10 years has meant I've been involved with some amazing people and families who are just trying to make it through life a little bit better. I've been fortunate to know them and help them in some small way."
One case, Avakian said, was on behalf of a pregnant waitress who was put on double shifts by the end of her ninth month in an attempt by her employer to force her to quit.
"Having nowhere else to go, she came to us, simply saying this has got to be wrong," he said. The employer was penalized.
In another instance, Avakian was asking questions of an iron-worker apprentice, one of about 9,000 such positions overseen by the bureau for on-the-job training.
The trainee told Avakian the opportunity came at the right time, because not only had he lost his job as a welder, he lost insurance coverage for a daughter with a serious medical condition — but the apprenticeship provided coverage and a path to a higher-paying job.
"They have a greater shot at life than they ever would have before" because of the apprenticeships, he said.
In addition to enforcing civil rights laws and overseeing apprenticeships, the bureau also seeks compliance with state wage and hour laws. Avakian said the bureau fields tens of thousands of calls annually from businesses and offers technical assistance to help them.
Avakian did touch on several headline-making cases during his talk:
• Stars Cabaret in Beaverton, where one minor received an award of $1.25 million and a second minor of $1 million after the bureau alleged unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment. The first girl, then age 13, was forced into prostitution by a mid-level manager — he was sentenced in 2014 to 15 years in prison — and the second girl, then 15, was forced to dance nude in front of men.
"But we did not feel it was right for the owners of that business, who were profiting, to get off scot-free," Avakian said.
"The two young women subjected to that horrible conduct will now have a very different future because the people at the bureau came forward with a hearing that protected them."
The 2017 awards followed a 2015 settlement in which Daimler Trucks North America paid $2.4 million to six former workers who filed civil rights complaints against it.
• The now-defunct Typhoon chain, which shut down its downtown Portland restaurant in 2011 and its other restaurants in 2012 after the bureau concluded it had discriminated against chefs who emigrated from Thailand.
"They found out when they got here that even after years of working, they were making less money than the brand-new white busboys in the restaurant," Avakian said. The men also were forced to prepare food at home without being paid for their work.
• Anti-abortion protesters at Lovejoy Surgicenter in northwest Portland. Avakian said while they have a constitutional right to protest, they could not block access — and one person accosted a patient seeking entry.
"There was no doubt he was creating an extremely physically intimidating situation," he said. "That is against the law. The First Amendment does not protect that kind of conduct."
The bureau ended up not taking legal action in 2013. But Avakian said protesters stopped such close confrontations after the bureau considering invoking a state law barring discrimination based on gender.
• Linda Campbell, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Eugene who sought a right to burial at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland with her then-partner of 17 years, Nancy Lynchild, who died of cancer in 2013.
Federal law then recognized marriage only as the union of one man and one woman. But months after Avakian intervened in 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs granted a waiver — a couple of years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
Campbell herself died of cancer on March 2 — and Avakian was among those who attended her funeral at the national cemetery in Portland.
"The heart of public service has to do with how we are going to make lives a little bit better for the people we serve," he said.
A decade passes
Avakian became labor commissioner in April 2008, when then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski named him to succeed Dan Gardner, who resigned to take a job in Washington, D.C. Avakian was then one of three Democratic state senators running for secretary of state.
Avakian was elected to a full term in the nonpartisan position in 2008, re-elected to a two-year term in 2012, and was unopposed for another four-year term in 2014. Avakian lost a bid in 2011 for the Democratic nomination for the 1st District congressional seat now held by Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton. He was the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in 2016 but lost to Republican Dennis Richardson.
Avakian chose not to seek re-election this year. Val Hoyle of Eugene, a former Democratic state representative and House majority leader, won a majority in the May 15 primary and will succeed Avakian on Jan. 7.
Avakian, a civil rights lawyer before his appointment as labor commissioner, said he hasn't decided what his next move will be.
Elected or appointed?
Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian weighs in on the side of popular election for his 115-year-old state office, only one of five (excluding judgeships) chosen by all Oregon voters.
There are periodic attempts to make the office appointive — most recently in 1995, when the Legislature made it nonpartisan at the urging of Jack Roberts, elected as a Republican in 1994 — but lawmakers have not done so. Roberts also tried to abolish it as an elected office.
"We are an agency that exists to protect Oregonians from anybody or any entity," Avakian said in response to a question raised May 21 at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.
"You do not want the person who has to go after government officials or agencies appointed by an official that he or she oversees. It would create a conflict of interest that would be untenable.
"It would lead to people not getting the same kind of surety they should have from an independent investigation and prosecution against their own government when they need it."
Avakian described two instances where his bureau's independence, aside from legislative approval of the budget, was critical.
In 2010, the bureau sued John Minnis and the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training — the agency that runs the state's public safety academy in Salem — on behalf of a female employee who alleged sexual harassment by Minnis.
Minnis, a former Portland police officer and state legislator from Wood Village, resigned under pressure in 2009 after the woman accused him of making unwanted sexual advances and taking advantage of her alcoholism in an attempt to ply her with sex.
Minnis was not charged with a crime in the incident, which occurred in California.
The complaint was settled in 2010 when the state paid the woman $450,000, short of the $2 million sought by the bureau.
In late 2015, Southern Oregon University agreed to pay $2.5 million to 325 workers who said they had not been paid the higher prevailing wage that applies to nonresidential public works projects. The bureau enforces Oregon's prevailing-wage law, which dates back to 1959, and is modeled on the federal Davis-Bacon Act of 1931.
The seven public universities are no longer a single state agency, but they are public institutions.
— Peter Wong