Secretary Of Labor: On Getting Americans Back To Work

August job numbers are showing a stagnant 9.1 percent unemployment rate. Concern is growing over whether the government could do more to boost job growth. Host Michel Martin speaks with U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis about the administration's efforts to create new jobs and what can be expected from President Obama's jobs plan next week

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Later in the program in Faith Matters, we'll hear about a Mississippi pastor who's trying to encourage his congregation to put down the fried chicken and embrace healthier eating habits. We'll hear how he's doing that in just a few minutes.

But first, a newsmaker interview with the Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. We caught up with her yesterday just ahead of the new unemployment numbers showing that job growth has essentially ground to a halt. Her department today reports that there was no growth in jobs in August. That's the worst monthly number since September of 2010, but the unemployment rate did not change. It remains at 9.1 percent.

That's a big reason why, on Thursday, President Obama is expected to unveil his plan to create more jobs amidst the nation's worst employment crisis since the Great Depression.

We thought the secretary of Labor would be a good person to ask about this so we caught up with her yesterday at her office in Washington, D.C. Madam Secretary, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Secretary HILDA SOLIS: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, of course, as you know better than anybody, there's real concern and real unhappiness about the ongoing rate of unemployment in this country. And I know we are speaking before the latest numbers are scheduled to come out. But the criticism is coming from people who have supported the president in the past. For example, this is Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO union. This is what he said at a jobs event on Wednesday. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICHARD TRUMKA: So, this is the time for boldness, and this is a moment that working people will judge all of our leaders. Will they propose solutions that are on the scale necessary to address the job crisis that America has right now?

MARTIN: So, what do you say to that?

SOLIS: Well, you know, Mr. Trumka represents a very large segment of our workers in this economy and many have been very hard hit. We know that. And I enjoy working with him. And we've been able to, I believe, really address some of the issues in the past two and a half years to help keep people in good jobs, help provide safety and protection.

And what I would say to the workers of America on the eve of Labor Day is that this president has made a strong commitment to help provide prioritization of good jobs for everyone. And I think what they will hear in the coming days is, in short, a sense that his priority - and he hopes that there is bipartisan support for this - is to put those needed resources right there so we can create these jobs.

And get those construction folks that have been unemployed for the past two years, where we've seen millions of people in that construction industry lose their jobs, get back to work by passing an infrastructure, you know, the Highway Trust Fund so that people can get back to work.

Those are good paying jobs, and it isn't exclusively just construction. It's those pipe fitters, it's the electrical workers, it's the architects, people that are going to repair our bridges, our sewage systems, our high-speed rail and all the industries that fall into that area. That's close to a million people that could get back to work right away. There's no reason why we can't support that.

And that's what I believe the president is asking the public to do: To stand with us, to notify also their members of Congress that they want jobs created. That's one quick way of doing it. That's one example of where folks on the other side of the aisle have already supported plans like this in the past. So, it's nothing entirely new, but it will be a more robust program.

MARTIN: Is that mainly what we can expect to hear from the president next week? I know you're not going to step on the president's message, but he's speaking to the private sector...

SOLIS: I think you're going to hear more about extension of the unemployment benefit program because we have, as you know, there are more than 45 percent of the people who've been unemployed more than six months. We have to remedy that. And keep in mind, that is not a welfare check that is earned funding that is deserved to people that have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Every dollar that is expended from that check generates $2 in the community.

Guess who benefits from that. The mom and pop shops, the restaurants, the dry cleaner, the gas attendant, who gets that money. It keeps those businesses going. That's another engine, a small growth engine, that's going to be out there pushing for jobs. Then in addition, he'll be looking at other means of tax breaks, payroll tax cuts for families, working families to have an additional perhaps $1,000 in their pocketbook to go buy additional supplies for school and things of that nature. Whatever it is that's needed.

That also had an impact this beginning of this year when we saw that proposal come into play after the Republicans and the president got together in December and decided to put that in a tax package, a payroll tax credit that actually helped out people.

I mean, it gave the incentive for people to hire up. And as a result, we saw our numbers at the first part of the year increase. So, we know that these things work. There'll be much more that the president will address, but those are kind of the basics that I would say to you now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're speaking with U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. We're talking about unemployment and President Obama's forthcoming speech to the nation expected for next week, where he's supposed to talk more about his plans to help create jobs.

Now, as you just mentioned, it isn't all bad news on the jobs front. One, you know, positive sign is that most major cities are still suffering but most cities also saw the unemployment rates fall compared with this time last year. What do you think contributed to that happy news?

SOLIS: I have to tell you that when I look back in retrospect in the last 17 months, we have created 2.4 million private sector jobs. Now, you compare that to the record of the previous administration and each month for the last, you know, the last term of that president, they only were able to create about 11,000 jobs per month. So, you can't compare apples and oranges. Clearly, the president is on the right track and we need to build confidence.

That's why people aren't spending money. It's not that everything is going down. It's because the American public sees that there's fights here in Capitol Hill and things aren't getting resolved. And we saw that happen right around the time where the debt ceiling was not completed and people were worried, markets were worried, businesses didn't want to go the extra mile because they were worried because there was gridlock on Capitol Hill.

And the president is saying: I've gone out, I've talked to the public. People want us to get the work done. That's what we're paid to do, and we better sit here and get it done. That's why we need this job package passed.

MARTIN: And, OK. But so, on the positive side, improvement from last year. On the less happy side, unemployment among African-Americans and Latinos remains much higher than the national average in...

SOLIS: But it is lower than it was two years ago...

MARTIN: OK.

SOLIS: ...when we started (unintelligible).

MARTIN: But significant figures like, for example, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, says he is as concerned as he ever has been about unemployment particularly among these groups that have been suffering disproportionately. This is what he had to say.

And as you know, of course, the Congressional Black Caucus just concluded it's Jobs for the People tour, you know, over the congressional break during which many members of Congress expressed their frustration about the lack of progress, particularly for these groups. So, I'll just play a short clip of what he had to say at the caucus's last job fair. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER: We have people here in Los Angeles who were in line this morning at 3:00 a.m. There is a very clear need for something very big and aggressive. And I think the president's going to do it. The question is, as always, whether or not Congress is going to support it.

MARTIN: And he went on to say that he's frustrated with all parties in this. He's frustrated with the president. He's frustrated with the Senate. He's frustrated with the House. But I'm interested in one of the questions that came up during this jobs tour. There are some members of this caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who suggests that there really need to be targeted efforts toward these groups that have been disproportionately affected. I mean, is that possible? Can you do that? Should you do that?

SOLIS: Well, I know that in the past through the Recovery Act money that I received, we actually were able to put out grants called Pathways Out of Poverty. And we actually targeted areas, metropolitan areas that had experienced 15 percent unemployment. And believe me, you would capture many of these kinds of demographics that we're talking about.

And I know that the president is very concerned. I'm very concerned. But I'm going to wait to let him tell the public, because I think there are some good news on the horizon.

MARTIN: The question I think some people have is: Do you have any arrows left in your quiver?

SOLIS: You know what, we've got a lot of ideas. There's a lot - in fact, to the credit of the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus and the Democratic Caucus, there are some good bills that are sitting up there right now that we support that haven't moved.

So the problem isn't with our party or with this president, it's with the inability of the folks up there that sit in the Congress that are not ready to move because they think somehow that expending more money - and you have to do that. Yes, we can be very deliberative in where we target that money, but we also can't harm the very people and the recovery that we know needs our full attention, 150 percent attention, right now.

MARTIN: But it's also true that there are just sharp differences and profound differences in political and economic philosophy right now, which you certainly know as a former member of Congress. And I'd like to ask, you know, what is your message? Or what do you say to people who simply just don't agree with the president's economic philosophy, who believe that the biggest issue confronting the public right now or confronting the country right now is federal spending? And they feel that the focus of political leadership ought to be in cutting spending. What is your message to them?

SOLIS: Well, my message is what the president has said: Let's be very systematic. Let's be very cautious as to where those cuts will be, and we've already had to cut back here in my own department by more than 5 percent. And that, believe me, is a big hit, in addition to freezing the salaries of federal employees and yet expecting them to keep doing more and more with less and less.

You see that happening at the state and local government. You see teachers now losing their jobs. What does that say about the future investments we're making in our young people, when we're telling they're teachers you're not needed?

Those are wrong cuts. We need to be making strategic cuts in areas where there is waste, but not hurt the most vulnerable communities and those places that are going to make us more competitive for tomorrow and for the next few weeks and the next month and the next year.

MARTIN: Well, finally, Monday is Labor Day, and that's the day that's meant to acknowledge the contributions that workers have made to this country.

SOLIS: All working people.

MARTIN: Sure, over - historically and right now. So secretary of Labor, is there any special message that you would like to send out to American workers, including those who are not currently working, on this Labor Day week?

SOLIS: Well, especially to those families that are currently suffering, that have family members that don't have jobs right now or that are faced with some very hard, difficult times, to know that this president, this administration, this labor secretary is with them, is sympathetic, and we'll do everything we can in every waking hour that we have to try to help them find that job, find that assistance, whatever it is they need.

And to make sure that we honor all the workers that have made so many sacrifices for this country, including those that are abroad and some that are working in military bases across this country, across the world, protecting our freedoms but also giving value and thanks and respect to all workers, who work hard. And all they want is a decent pay, some dignity and respect. That's what I hope and pray for on this Labor Day.

MARTIN: Hilda Solis is the U.S. Secretary of Labor. She was kind enough to join us from her office in Washington, D.C. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us once again.

SOLIS: Thank you, Michel. Have a good, happy Labor Day.

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