SAINT PAUL — Roslyn Robertson, the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, regards its mission as “noble work.”
“We are a big part of the lives of working people,” said Robertson. She’s a career employee at DLI who over her 30-plus year career has worked in or led all of the department’s business units including apprenticeship, labor standards, OSHA compliance and consultation, workers compensation, and construction licensing.
“What’s kept me going? When I began my work in labor standards, engaging with working people and seeing the actions I took actually made a difference in the lives of the people on the other end of the phone,” Robertson told the Labor Review. “I found my space.”
“If I can make a difference in whether someone gets a paycheck, I’m making a difference in whether a family eats for the day, whether they can keep their housing secured. That is all the work of the agency,” Robertson said.
“Working people need leaders who understand their perspective and have the commitment to support working people,” Robertson added.
Governor Tim Walz named Robertson as DLI commissioner January 22. She had been serving as acting commissioner since August of last year, when the Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate took a surprise vote to reject the confirmation of DLI commissioner Nancy Leppink.
After Leppink became DLI commissioner in 2019, she had tapped Robertson as her deputy commissioner, bringing Robertson out of a three-year retirement to return to DLI.
Robertson was an obvious choice to follow Leppink as DLI commissioner. “I told the Governor I felt like the position had chosen me,” she said. “I recognize the responsibility I have to working people, so I had to step up.”
“Roslyn Robertson’s deep and broad experience in worker protection issues have prepared her well to lead during this unprecedented time,” said Governor Walz. “I am proud to appoint her to this critical role of keeping Minnesota workers safe and businesses strong as we continue navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic together.”
“COVID-19 has made worker safety more important than ever and Commissioner Robertson is leading a department that is proactive in addressing worker concerns and keeping employers accountable,” said Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “Working Minnesotans will be well-served under her continued leadership.”
Over her career at DLI, Robertson worked at times as a union member. She is a former member of both AFSCME and MAPE — the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.
“I certainly support union labor,” Robertson told the Labor Review. “I recognize its values,” she said, as well as the labor movement’s achievements over the years to boost wages and pass laws to advance worker safety. She added, “every worker has benefited from the efforts of organized labor.”
“My son Rasheed Wade is an active union member with the Heat and Frost Insulators,” Robertson reported. “He went through an apprentice program.”
Robertson also said she has a brother who has worked as a union carpenter.
Robertson moved to the Twin Cities as a teenager with her family and her first job was as a student worker during high school at what is now DLI. After graduating from Alabama State University with a major in business management, Robertson checked in with her former supervisor at DLI and “I was offered a job on the spot,” she related.
She worked with the apprentice programs at DLI and then moved to labor standards. “The labor standards area defined me,” she said. “I had found my space in helping individuals with workplace concerns.”
Working in different areas of the department over the years, Robertson rose to assistant commissioner in 2006 before going back to lead different program areas at DLI.
“I’ve only had one employer — pretty amazing in this day and time,” she noted.
As Robertson moves into her new role as DLI commissioner, “there are many challenges ahead,” she said.
The department’s response to COVID-19 is foremost.
“Labor and Industry has been incredibly important to the state’s COVID response, particularly as it relates to the safety of workers,” Robertson said.
The lack of paid leave for all workers puts some workers in an impossible situation during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she noted. People have had to choose between following public health recommendations to quarantine and getting a paycheck.
“We say we value front-line workers but we value them by protecting them, keeping them safe and keeping them financially secure if their work is interrupted,” Robertson said.
Minnesota is one of 22 states with its own OSHA program to monitor and enforce workplace safety.
“We are moving from a complaint-based enforcement to a strategic compliance approach,” Robertson said. “This approach allows us to really embrace using data to inform us where we need to spend our time.”
The goal is to create strategies “to deal with entire industries” and be pro-active she said, “before we get the complaint in the door.”
By focusing resources on cases that will impact others, “the plan is to grow the employers that are doing it right,” Robertson said. She added, “at the end of the day, if the carrot doesn’t work, if education doesn’t work… then we use the enforcement tools we have… At the end of the day, we have a statutory obligation to hold employers accountable.”
With the new Biden administration in Washington, “I definitely expect to see significant change, “Robertson said. “I think we’re going to see stronger enforcement including standards in the OSHA program… I see a renewed commitment to working with the states and a renewed commitment to bring all stakeholders to the table.”
By Steve Share
Minneapolis Labor Review