Gov. Christine Gregoire seems to have pulled off the improbable — appointing a labor chief that business groups and organized labor...

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Gov. Christine Gregoire seems to have pulled off the improbable — appointing a labor chief that business groups and organized labor may accept.

Gary Weeks, a top government official in Oregon with a reputation as a bridge builder, would head Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries, which manages the state’s workers’ compensation systems and enforces workplace safety.

Gregoire made the announcement yesterday, saying it’s time the agency made peace with its main constituencies.

“It is an agency that really serves two masters, business and labor, and today, it has both masters irritated,” the governor said. “We’ve had far too much division … too much fighting” and that both sides need to stop bickering and work together.

Weeks heads Oregon’s Department of Human Services, the largest agency in the state, where he manages 9,500 employees and a $9.5 billion budget. Washington’s L&I has 2,600 employees and a $476 million in its biennial budget.

“He doesn’t come from a labor or business background, so that is a step in the right direction for us,” said Carolyn Logue, who runs the state chapter of National Federation of Independent Business. “He has a great attitude in terms of how he approaches business, and he gains compliance with more of a carrot than a stick.”

Gary Weeks

Director: Washington state Department of Labor & Industries

Age: 58

Background: Heads Oregon’s Department of Human Services; led the Department of Administrative Services, State Lottery and Department of Consumer and Business Services. Also worked for Casey Strategic Consulting Group.

Qualifications: Oversaw the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s worker-protection program in Oregon; former insurance commissioner; implemented workers’ compensation reform.

Style: “He’s focused on accountability and results, but he doesn’t ignore process,” said Cindy Becker, former colleague and deputy director of Oregon Department of Human Services.

Weeks met with Logue and other business groups in Olympia yesterday, shortly after he talked with labor representatives.

Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said he came away from the 45-minute meeting encouraged.

“He wants to make sure we have strong communication, which is important.”

Assuming the Senate confirms his appointment, Weeks would replace Paul Trause, who returned to his former job as deputy commissioner of the state’s Employment Security Department.

L&I has been at the center of bitter political fights in recent years. With the approval of organized labor, the agency in 2000 adopted some of the toughest ergonomics rules in the country, a move aimed at preventing stress injuries and lowering workers’ compensation claims.

Business groups said the measures were extreme and costly. They backed a successful voter initiative in 2003, which repealed the rules before they were implemented.

The battle has since shifted to workers’ compensation premiums, which have risen three times in the past three years.

One group reserving judgment on Gregoire’s pick is the Building Industry Association of Washington, which sponsored the workplace ergonomics repeal and vigorously campaigned for Republican Dino Rossi’s bid for governor.

“I don’t know anything about this person,” said Tom Kwieciak, an association representative. “We certainly hope he’s going to listen a little bit more to the business community and not be so heavily slanted toward labor.”

As Oregon’s insurance commissioner in the early 1990s, Weeks investigated the state’s largest workers’ comp insurer, SAIF, for rejecting too many injury claims. Business interests criticized the investigation, but Weeks ordered SAIF to change its practices.

Weeks, who lives in Keizer, Ore., said he’s ready for the new challenges. He’s scheduled to start his $135,000-a-year job in mid-May after Oregon’s human-services budget is resolved.

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or Information from The Associated Press is included in this report..

Agriculture chief asked to stay on

Gov. Christine Gregoire yesterday reappointed one of former Gov. Gary Locke’s most popular Cabinet secretaries, Agriculture Director Valoria Loveland of Pasco. Loveland, who has been director since 2002, has ties to the Legislature as former Senate budget chairwoman.

Gregoire said Loveland will expand trade promotion, a buy-Washington products emphasis, drought preparations, water-storage planning and agricultural research.

The agriculture job pays $115,000 a year. Loveland was previously confirmed, but the Senate plans a hearing so her former colleagues can laud her efforts at the department, the Governor’s Office said.

The Associated Press