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How to Put “The New Nevada” to Work: A Conversation with Nevada DETR Director Don Soderberg

Governor Brian Sandoval (R) has spoken often and glowingly about “The New Nevada”. How is that working? And what changes may be coming to the state’s workplaces?

I spoke with someone Governor Sandoval has entrusted with a host of workforce development programs… And someone many in Nevada Legislature expect to implement the workplace equality bills they’re working to pass.

What’s the Nevada Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation (DETR) all about? Believe it or not, DETR does more than just deliver unemployment benefits. DETR also plays an integral role in “The New Nevada” workforce innovation and economic development programs Brian Sandoval has championed as Governor.

I spoke about these and much more with DETR Director Don Soderberg at his Las Vegas office. He explained that one of his department’s tasks is to “assist people when they’re unemployed”, then added that DETR’s ultimate goal is “all about getting people back to work”.

“We need to focus on our core mission, and do it really well. We have people to serve. We serve them.” – Don Soderberg
Photo by Andrew Davey

He expressed confidence that the Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovations (OWINN) can help in “nurturing the workforce” and ensuring more Nevadans are hired by the companies the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) wants to relocate here. “Nobody’s thinking about this all the time”… Or at least, not until Sandoval issued an executive order to create OWINN. If SB 516 passes the Nevada Legislature, OWINN will become a permanent fixture in the state’s workforce development infrastructure.

Soderberg currently serves on the OWINN board. In addition, he oversees all the programs DETR administers. This includes Nevada JobConnect, the Nevada Workforce database, training programs for Nevadans with disabilities, and the Nevada Equal Rights Commission (NERC).

NERC has been in the news lately, as the Nevada Legislature has been considering several workplace equality bills that propose sending more workplace discrimination cases its way. How is DETR preparing for them?

“There needs to be a thoughtful discussion on the role and size of NERC.” – Don Soderberg

During the Great Recession, the entirety of NERC was on the chopping block. Since 2011, NERC has clawed its way back to a staff of 17. “NERC mediated almost 98% of cases. That’s an incredible number.” Still, there’s only so much more the agency can do with limited staff and budget.

Soderberg used the failure of the AB 178 equal pay bill as an example of what he feels legislators should not do. NERC depends on the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for funding. The punitive damages provision of AB 178 caused the fiscal note, as the EEOC would have only compensated for one-third of the costs of the workplace discrimination cases covered by the bill. “At the end of the day, a more mediation centered process compensates the aggrieved party more quickly.”

On the other hand, DETR officials have been working with Senator Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) to amend the similar SB 397 equal pay bill. Soderberg expressed appreciation for Spearman and other legislators working with them to make their bills easier for DETR to implement. “We’ve had thoughtful discussions. […] She wants employers to stop [discriminating], rather than create more damages for the claimant.”

“What we’re hearing from economic development [officials] is we don’t have enough qualified workers. If you’re excluding them, we’ll have even fewer qualified workers.” – Don Soderberg

While DETR is officially neutral on SB 397 and the AB 384Ban the Box” bill, Soderberg expressed sympathy for the goals of these bills. “We feel strongly that people with [prior] criminal records should be given the opportunity to work.”

Soderberg also expressed appreciation for Assembly Member Tyrone Thompson (D-North Las Vegas) working with DETR to amend the bill. “We can’t tell other agencies what to do. […] There are matters of employer judgment that NERC doesn’t want to second-guess.” The amended AB 384 clarifies which criminal records employers shall not be considered when first considering potential employees, and exempts sensitive positions like school personnel and law enforcement.

Like other facets of state government, DETR relies upon federal funds to stay afloat. I asked Don Soderberg about ongoing uncertainty over federal funding to Nevada under the Trump Administration.

“We always do fire drills to prepare people to come in Monday morning and be told they can’t work.” – Don Soderberg

Earlier this week, U.S. Senators Dean Heller (R) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D) held town halls in Nevada. I asked Mr. Soderberg what advice he has for them and Nevada’s U.S. House delegation. “We’re always concerned, being federally funded. What’s going to be cut? We always sweat these continuing resolutions. It would be good to have some certainty.”

While the federal landscape is anything but certain, Don Soderberg voiced optimism on the State of Nevada’s workforce. He’s focused on his department’s mission, and he’s confident they’re accomplishing it really well.

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