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New role, no problem

Leslie Osborn focuses on helping released prisoners,  workforce training

By Chris Eversole

Leslie Osborn is excited about her new role as Oklahoma labor commissioner, and she’s moving forward on two fronts that are new for the office – criminal justice reform and workforce


Osborn, who previously was a state representative serving the Mustang area, won election in November.

Leslie Osborn

She took office at a time when a state commission on occupational licenses is starting. The Legislator mandated that commission ensure that occupational licenses don’t unnecessarily hurt released prisoners.

Osborn, as labor commissioner, chairs the commission.

She’s set up meetings with organizations that assist ex-prisoners and with agencies that can help them.

The commission is mandated to review one-quarter of all occupational licenses


Osborn plans to ask stakeholders which of the occupational licenses present the biggest barriers and to examine them this year. They could include licenses for professionals ranging from nurses to plumbers.

“We want to see if they are an impediment and if they are antiquated or obsolete,” Osborn said.

The work to remove roadblocks to ex-prisoners is part of a push for criminal justice reform in recent years.

This year, Oklahoma became the state with the highest incarceration rate in the United States.

“When we became No. 1, everyone said, ‘we’ve got a problem,’” Osborn said.

New legislation based on State Question 780, which passed in 2016, reduces some low-level felonies to misdemeanors.

In addition to that, changes to occupational license requirements that bar people convicted of a felony may need to be changed, Osborn said.

“We want to brainstorm with agencies and industry groups and find the 10 to 15 requirements that are affecting the most people being released from prison,” Osborn said.

“We’re not talking about people convicted of high-level drug trafficking, but we want to help people who need a job get one,” she said.

Osborn also plans to work for more statewide coordination of workforce training.

Major companies to Oklahoma considering moving to Oklahoma want assurance that the workers they need are available.

The Department of Labor can help organizations, including technical colleges, gear up training for new companies, Osborn believes.

“We need to be agile in microtargeting training in a coordinated way,” she said. “We’ve been working in silos too much.”

Osborn’s initiatives in criminal justice and workforce training go beyond the traditional role of the labor commissioner.

The 81 staff members of the agency focus on enforcing safety regulations for things such as boilers and elevators.

The Department of Labor also enforces wage-and-hour laws.

“If a waitress comes to us because she’s not getting the pay her employer agreed to, we go to bat for her,” Osborn said.

“If we get her $1,000 she deserves, that may keep her from having her car repossessed, and it may mean she can pay her rent.”

Osborn decided to run for labor commissioner because incumbent Melissa Houston didn’t seek reelection.

Osborn has interacted with the Department of Labor on a bill regulating the conversion of vehicles to run on compressed natural gas and on other issues.

“I started really appreciating the role the Department of Labor, and I decided to run when the commissioner’s office open up,” she said.

Her campaign was tough.

“I put 45,000 miles on my car,” she said. “It was a one-man show.”

Osborn wasn’t sure if she would win.

“You never know what the voters are going to do,” she said. “I’m glad the campaign is over, and I’m eager to do the best I can in the job.”

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