There are a few unfamiliar jobs in the state government and Commissioner of Labor is quite possibly one of them.
There are labor law posters pinned up in break rooms and other areas around the workplace, but when it comes to the job of labor commissioner, how many can actually explain what they do?
Oklahoma’s Commissioner of Labor Melissa Houston visited the Altus on Friday for that very reason.
Houston has Altus ties and in fact, her mother — City of Altus Planning Director Barbara Burleson — still lives here and so she wanted to speak to local business owners and explain what she does, why she does it and how it is done.
Houston’s story is a unique one. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1991 with a bachelor’s degree in letters before going on to earn a Juris Doctor in 1994.
Fresh out of college, Houston began working as a lawyer in the Journal Record Building — now the Heritage Building — in January 1995 in downtown Oklahoma City just to the north of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, the target of the Oklahoma City bombing.
On that fateful day, Houston was in her office just above what is now known as the “Survivor Tree” when the blast ripped through the area, killing 168 people and damaging several nearby buildings including the Journal Record Building.
Houston escaped without physical injury and was the only person in her office that did not require medical attention.
But the tragedy has stuck with her and she feels led down her current path.
“That’s a really unique and horrible experience to have at such a young age and for me. It really led me to have a passion for public service,” Houston said. “It really instilled in me that life is short and while you’re here you need to be of use in some way. So my way of being of use has led me through a career of public service and public policy.”
After her job in Oklahoma City, Houston served as the deputy director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association before moving on to the Office of Homeland Security for eight and one-half years where she learned many valuable lessons.
“One of the important lessons I learned there is that I don’t have to be an expert on everything,” she said. “I’m not a firefighter, I’m not a cop, but I need to listen to the people who are. I need to listen to the people who do that job every day and figure out ways to help them do their job better and so that’s a skill I have brought with me to my current position.”
Houston’s final stop before her current position was the chief of staff for the Oklahoma attorney general. It was after the August 2015 murder of former Labor Commissioner Mark Costello that Houston was appointed to her current position by Gov. Mary Fallin and it is where she will remain until the 2018 election.
In her first year, Houston realized that many people have a misconception about what the Department of Labor actually does. Many feel like if primarily deals with labor issues, when in truth, that is only a very small part of what they do.
“In the beginning, this position was very labor focused and now it really isn’t. The only labor issues we work on are wage and hour claims. So, for somebody who has done the work and has not been compensated for it, we help them,” Houston said. “The first main area we focus on is safety. With public employers, we are the enforcement arm and with the private sector, we offer consultation services by walking through an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) consultation and identifying any areas OSHA might flag the business. We have no jurisdiction with private businesses so we cannot fine them, all we can do is give them best practices and recommendations on what to fix so that they do not get fined. It is free of charge and confidential and is an incredible resource that is available to employers in the state of Oklahoma that many are not aware of.”
“The other area that we focus on is regulation. We regulate things like elevators, boilers and licensing for alarms, locksmiths, and fire sprinkler systems, among others but we also have the amusement ride industry,” she said. “What people don’t understand is that there are no national standards for amusement ride safety. It is very much state-by-state and in some places it’s county-by-county. There are only 30 states that regulate amusement rides and within the 30, some of them just need to turn in their insurance policy and self report. Oklahoma has all that and we have the highest level of protection which is we have state inspectors who go on-site and inspect the amusement rides as they’re going up and certify them before they are operational.”
“For all the areas we regulate, I have really taken this opportunity to look at the programs and see if they still make sense,” she said. “One of the things the legislature helped me with this session is for these areas, we have the ability to fine because we want people to be in compliance but I did not want to make it a revenue generator for us and have people believe that we are only there to get money. I want them to believe we are there for public safety and because we have the same interests as them. So from now on, the Department of Labor does not keep any of the fines from any of our regulation programs.”
Houston enjoys her job immensely and describes herself as a policy nerd, and when it comes down to it, the most rewarding aspect of her job for her is her ability to help people.
“The opportunity to be of service and to make a difference,” Houston said. “No one has had the opportunity to take a look at the agency because it takes time and when you’re running for office, it’s hard to focus on the day-to-day. I enjoy public policy and enjoy getting into the statues and hearing from the stakeholders and learning an enormous amount and so learning what we do and how we can do better and hopefully leaving the agency better than the way I found it is an incredible opportunity.”
Houston said there is so much about the Department of Labor that is unknown and shared advice.
“Be aware,” she said. “Being aware of all the different programs we have. Protecting the safety of the worker but also the public is our mission and we have incredible people at the agency who work hard every day for those two core functions and the people of the state should be very proud of the employees we have at the Department of Labor.”
Altus Chamber of Commerce President Brian Bush thanked Houston for her trip to Altus.
“The main thing is with her position and how it does impact business across the state, we wanted to make sure that our business folks here in Altus got a chance to talk with her and understand the things she is working on but also be able to express to her the things that are affecting their businesses,” Bush said.
For more information visit labor.ok.gov.
Reach Ryan Lewis at 580-482-1221, ext. 2076.