The UC Hastings Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution is training 227 members of the California Labor Commissioner’s Office on techniques to help the agency resolve disputes between California wage-earners and their employers more quickly and efficiently.
In one of the largest projects of its kind CNDR has taken on in recent years, CNDR Director Sheila Purcell and Deputy Director Mattie Robertson (’10) worked with the agency to tailor the training to meet the Labor Commissioner’s Office needs. About 20 coaches and five trainers are delivering the series of courses via Zoom to staff that include attorneys and investigators with the Labor Commissioner’s Office, which is part of the California Department of Industrial Relations within the Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
This project is part of the Labor Commissioner’s Office’s initiative to become trauma-informed. Labor Commissioner Lilia García-Brower recognizes most Californians have experienced some type of trauma that affects their experiences at work and how they perceive government, be it negative interactions with enforcement authorities, immigration vulnerabilities, or poverty.
“We must recognize trauma and change how we execute our work in order to attempt to heal the broken trust too many people feel for government. If the public does not believe we adjudicate or investigate cases fairly, they will not come to us or collaborate in investigations,” said García-Brower. “This project with CNDR demonstrates our commitment to build our team’s capacity to serve a traumatized public as competently as we do a non-traumatized public.”
Phoebe Liu, an attorney in the Labor Commissioner’s Office who led the project on behalf of the Labor Commissioner’s Office, says the agency has seen its backlog of cases grow during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the agency pivoted to remote work. The public health crisis and related new employment rules created novel issues as well. Examples include employees voicing concerns about workplace safety, availability of paid sick leave, and the ability to work from home or meet their childcare obligations.
“COVID has really changed us and our agency,” Liu says. “The Labor Commissioner’s Office realized we would need to think outside the box in reaching settlements and resolutions that fit people’s needs.”
Liu is already hearing positive indications that the training is working. Investigators who received mediation training were able to put their new skills into action during the agency’s recent push to settle cases even before the investigation stage.
CNDR is providing a mediation certification course to staff who handle settlement conferences and a negotiation certification course to staff who regularly help the public when they ask for information or file a complaint. García-Brower specifically requested that all 227 participating employees attend a workshop on strategies to recognize and respond to the traumas experienced throughout varying life experiences.
The mediation and negotiation training was structured in groups of 24 or fewer so everyone could appear together on one Zoom screen. Participants got a chance to put their training into action by role-playing typical scenarios they might see. Instructors followed up with one-on-one coaching and feedback.
Two professors who teach at UC Hastings’ Individual Representation Clinic—which represents low-wage workers who have brought claims to the Labor Commissioner’s Office—say they support the focus on trying to resolve cases before they advance to the hearing stage or issuance of formal determinations.
Professors Mai Linh Spencer and Miye A. Goshi say emotions in these cases often run high due to personal relationships, or employees feeling betrayed or mistreated.
“An adversarial hearing may exacerbate the bad feeling,” Spencer says. “In many cases, skilled mediation will reach a faster, better result.” When a mediator takes the time to listen carefully to our client, realistically assess the merits of their case, and try to reach meaningful settlement, our client is going to be more satisfied with both the result and the process.”
Settlement talks are useful because they allow the parties to feel heard. “It can be a time-consuming process, but well worth it for all involved,” Goshi says.
Purcell says the trainers—Jessica Notini, John Ford, John Dean, Kavya Mohankumar, and Mallika Kaur—did an impressive job customizing the content to reflect real-world scenarios the Labor Commissioner’s Office sees every day.
Robertson says the trainees are showing they are engaged in the training and eager to apply their newfound skills. “It feels very rewarding,” she says, “to be part of something that’s going to have a positive impact on people’s everyday lives.”