State labor commissioner Ken Peterson takes charge (again)

Ken Peterson, newly-appointed by Governor Mark Dayton to lead the state's Department of Labor and Industry, is no stranger to the post: he served under Governor Rudy Perpich as commissioner of DLI from 1988-1991.

Peterson made his first return appearance as labor commissioner before a Minnesota House Committee January 13.

"As some of you know, this is my second stint as commissioner," Peterson told the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Committee. "The department has changed since then."

The single biggest change for DLI since he last served, he said, is that the agency in 2005 became responsible for construction codes and licensing.

The other change: how technology has changed the way DLI carries on its work.

One job that hasn't changed: "When Governor Dayton hired me, he told me to attract good jobs and keep good jobs" in Minnesota, Peterson said.

DLI's mission is "to ensure Minnesota's work and living environments are equitable, healthy and safe."

DLI's work encompasses a broad range of activity. In addition to the department's relatively new duties to oversee construction codes and licensing, DLI also governs apprenticeships and labor standards (including prevailing wage).

DLI also is charged with workplace safety and monitors compliance with the state's Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).

More than one-half of DLI's budget goes to providing benefits to injured workers under the state's workers compensation program.

Altogether, DLI has a budget of nearly $260 million and about 430 employees.

Issues past and present

After testifying to the House committee January 13, Peterson took some time with the Labor Review to discuss his history with DLI and the challenges ahead.

When Peterson served as DLI commissioner from 1988-1991, a drive by the business community to cut workers compensation costs led to major battles at the state legislature.

Governor Perpich ultimately vetoed an anti-worker reform package and the Minnesota AFL-CIO and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce - with prodding from Perpich -later negotiated a compromise. Peterson said of Perpich: "he was a political master."

Since that time, Peterson said, Minnesota's workers compensation costs have dropped from among the top five states. "Now we're in the middle."

He doesn't expect workers compensation to be a major issue for his new appointment.

(He noted that workers comp claims have declined significantly, in part, because the state has seen a downturn in the number of both manufacturing jobs and construction jobs).

With new Republican majorities in the state legislature, some labor advocates fear a challenge to prevailing wage standards.

"Our general feeling would be that prevailing wage is working well," Peterson said. "Prevailing wage has provided good buildings, good construction standards for the state of Minnesota. In our climate, we need to have the best buildings possible. It's accomplished that."

Peterson said he expects DLI to be working to speed up code inspections. "If we make sure we get an electrical inspector out to a site as quickly as possible, then people can get to work."

Peterson also wants to see DLI speed up processing of workers comp claims. "A lot of times if people have a problem, they call their legislator," he said. "I want them to know they can contact us."

A focus on workplace safety

Peterson said a strong focus on workplace safety was a legacy of his leadership of DLI under Governor Perpich. "We made some workplaces safer," he said.

During those years, the Labor Review reported Peterson's DLI asking the legislature to establish its own OSHA and to increase criminal sanctions for OSHA violations. Under Peterson's leadership, DLI issued the department's first annual report on Minnesota workplace safety.

The Labor Review ran a Peterson commentary April 27, 1990 for Workers Memorial Day, a nationwide event highlighting workplace safety issues. "Accidents don't just happen," Peterson wrote at the time.

On his first day back at DLI this year, Peterson related, he went to check on the safety records of one company. That employer - a major construction firm - had two fatalities on its job sites within two years when Peterson first served as DLI commissioner. "We gave them a pretty big fine," he recalled. "I was criticized in the business press for not treating them fairly."

When Peterson just now checked on that company's safety record, he reported, "that company hasn't had a fatality since. I like to think that fine saved lives."

"That was a case where tough enforcement helped a company and helped its employees," he said.

A working relationship with labor

Labor leaders who worked with Peterson during his first time heading DLI recall him as a straight-shooter who treated labor fairly.

"We had good relations," recalled Dan Gustafson, who was president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO at the time. "He was always pretty even-handed in his dealings."

"Our relationship with Commissioner Peterson was one that was very good," remembered Bernie Brommer, who at that time was the Minnesota AFL-CIO's secretary-treasurer. "We found him to be very sympathetic to the needs of injured workers."

And, Brommer added, Peterson "was unwilling to let himself be run over by the corporate and business interests."

A record of service

In the years before and since Peterson first headed DLI, he has served 30 years in numerous positions in state agencies and local government, including time as director of the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development. Most recently, Peterson worked in the Minnesota Attorney General's office, where he was deputy attorney general for government operations.

Minnesota's labor leaders welcomed Peterson's return as DLI commissioner.

"His experience and integrity are proven beyond measure. He's a solid choice," said Minnesota Nurses Association president Linda Hamilton, RN.

"Ken Peterson is a long-time advocate for working people," said Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. "MAPE welcomes his appointment to lead this vital department that works to ensure safe and equitable workplaces for all Minnesotans."

Looking ahead, Peterson said, he wants to again make safety a paramount concern of DLI so that "no worker in Minnesota has an unnecessary injury or death."

"If someone is hurt," he added, "I want to make sure they're taken care of."

"We intend to follow the law," Peterson said of the Department of Labor and Industry. "At the same time, we can be a pulpit exhorting people to be safe."

"I think I understand the challenges facing working people," Peterson told the Labor Review. "We want to work with organized labor, leaders and members."