Secretary Of Labor Hilda Solis

Hilda Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor in February of 2009. Now she says she's getting down to business with a vow to enforce laws that protect workers. Secretary of Labor Solis answers questions about green jobs, worker safety, unemployment and the recession.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Where are all those green jobs we heard so much about during the election? Why hasn't stimulus spending stopped the rise in unemployment? Will the Obama administration push through the so-called card-check legislation to make union organizing easier? Will OSHA and the Office of Mine Safety reinstitute worker safety regulations dropped in the Bush years? And will that impose burdens on business as we try to revive the economy? What's the effect of the jump in the minimum wage?

If you have questions on those or other issues for the United States secretary of labor, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, amid reports that as much as half the population could be affected by swine flu and that 90,000 might die, questions and answers about the new H1N1 virus. You can send emails now. The address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis joins us here in Studio 3A, and thanks very much for coming in today.

Secretary HILDA SOLIS (Department of Labor): Great to be here.

CONAN: When you were appointed by President Obama, you knew that unemployment was bad and getting worse, and that this recession was going to be deeper and longer than we had feared initially. Why did you want this job?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. SOLIS: Well, you know, it is a challenge, but it - I look, in retrospect, at where I started in my public life in terms of working on behalf of working-class people, middle-class people, and I think about my days in the Assembly in California in 1992 and then serving in the Senate in '94, and was always very, very much akin to what was happening with working-class people, especially people in blue-collar jobs. That's been my background, and working very closely on issues that will affect the largest number of people, one of which was minimum wage and leveling a statewide initiative to get that passed in California - quite remarkable.

I think after we got that passed back in 1996, then other states followed suit, as well. And since then, I mean, it's just been a part of what I believe in, that, you know, we should be able to level the playing field for working-class people, especially in these hard times, hard economic times where many, many people have lost their manufacturing jobs.

A lot of those jobs have left the country and gone offshore. I think there's still a lot that we can do, and the president has given me the opportunity to work with him and institute and implement some of these plans that I fought for even as a House member, as recently as a House member just a few years ago - a few months ago. And so I'm honored. I'm honored.

CONAN: Including another rise in the minimum wage. And as ever, the debate about that is always businesses, small businesses say we won't hire people. We're going to have to lay people off because we're going to have to pay them more. Other people say wait a minute, this is going to be injecting more money into the economy. The people who earn this money will spend it. What's been the effect, as far as you can tell, of the rise in the minimum wage?

Sec. SOLIS: It's only been a month or so that it was increased. It's $7.25, right? I would say to you that business owners knew this was coming. This was a law that was passed that I got to vote on as a member of the House, and it was signed into law by President Bush.

So it wasn't a surprise. I think it's unfortunate, of course, that we're in this hard economic situation, but I don't think that people necessarily will be turned away from the jobs that they currently have. What usually happens is the person that typically benefits from the minimum wage is someone over the age of 20. I would say a good, maybe, 40, 50 percent of that population is over 20.

So they're not just high school kids and the myth that they're college students. Many are women, single head of households that are working and holding down two minimum-wage jobs, and many minimum-wage workers work 40 hours a week. So what we thought many years ago, minimum wage was just the bottom foundation to get people going has been the norm.

CONAN: Entry-level, yeah.

Sec. SOLIS: Yes. It's been the norm, and it's - and that's not where it should be. We should continually look to review how people are having to juggle so many things in this hard economic time. So I don't think that it's a negative thing, as again, I say, it was something that was passed into law by a Republican president, was signed into law.

CONAN: Our guest is Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, as she mentioned, formally a member of the House of Representatives, representing the State of California. And we'd like your input, as well: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Rita's on the line. Rita is calling from Cinnaminson in New Jersey.

RITA (Caller): Cinnaminson, yes, thank you. Yeah, I had a comment about green jobs. I have been unemployed since February, and it's been really difficult to try to find anyplace that I could go to get trained. I'm specifically interested in solar energy and solar energy sales, as I've seen a lot of companies around the area are starting to put up signs about people going solar. But it just seems really difficult to find any way to get involved in that industry. Do you have any advice?

Sec. SOLIS: Have you contacted your local one-stop? A one-stop is a job-training office that is run by usually the state of, in this example, New Jersey and DOL, Department of Labor. I would go in. There's free services. You can go online, look up to see where jobs are. But also if you need training in the area of solar installation, there should be programs available for you to get involved in.

So I would encourage you to do that, and, as a last resort, look us up: dol.org - I mean .gov, not .org. I'm thinking other Internet. But anyway, it's dol.gov, and you can look up to see in your region what's available, and we'll be happy to help you out. In fact, we want and encourage people to take advantage of this time to get skilled-up for new jobs and retraining.

We get a lot of people, for example in that area in the Northeast, that are formerly laid off from the automobile industry and are looking for new avenues. So we're promoting not only green jobs, but also health-care careers, entry level. We are prepared to provide initial funding that will be going out for the training.

We don't actually provide the job, but we provide the training which will lead you to the job. So that's what we're going to offer through the Department of Labor. And I'm glad you're calling, because I think we need more females to get into the green-job movement.

CONAN: Rita, what…

RITA: That's what I'm hoping. I'd like to get into something involved with a sales department - not so much the installation, being up on the roof.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. SOLIS: Right, but you know what? Those jobs pay well, too.

CONAN: Rita, what business were you in before?

RITA: I was actually in sales for an insurance brokerage firm, and it's a tough market as far as health insurance is concerned. And we had seen a lot of people last year just - companies just reluctant to make changes in that area as far as who they're working with. Our company experienced a significant downsize, and so I was let go as a result of that downsizing. But it's just - I want to find something that my heart is in, and my heart has been in green and doing something that's going to ultimately help the planet. So I'm hoping to use this time to transition into something that is more fulfilling for me, personally.

Sec. SOLIS: I really appreciate your inquiry and would ask you to take a look at the kinds of jobs that will be available. The president, you know, wants to weatherize a million homes. So with that is going to be job creation through the Department of HUD and through our training programs, through DOL. We'd be happy to serve the kinds of individuals like yourself who want to make that career change.

CONAN: Rita, good luck to you.

RITA: Thank you so much.

Sec. SOLIS: Good luck.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let me ask about some of that spending. We heard a lot about these green jobs during the election campaign, as you well remember. And nevertheless, it's been - well, it's been sluggish, and a lot of these companies in the recession have been struggling.

Sec. SOLIS: And part of it is due because of the financial markets, the contraction that's occurred with the availability of credit. But Department of Energy, Department of HUD and also our department are working, linking up to see how we can focus and target these funds, for example, in weatherization.

We're expecting to see a million homes covered in a span of time. There will be funding for those initiatives, but also for job training. So that's where we come in, through the Department of Labor. And we're working with community colleges. We're working with apprenticeship programs, with union folks to make sure that we have a capable workforce. And right now, I'll tell you, we are sorely underserved. We don't have enough people who understand the concepts and understand how to go about weatherizing your home in a manner that's actually going to reduce your carbon footprint.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Jeff, and Jeff with us from La Grange in Illinois.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call - secretary of labor, thank you very much. I just wanted to comment and say that even though it's a start to get - to raise the minimum wage, when it's all said and done, after two weeks, that's not enough money to do anything with. You're going to pay your electric. You're going to pay your rent. You're going to pay your insurance. You're going to - and then you have nothing left.

CONAN: What business are you in, Jeff?

JEFF: I deliver flowers.

CONAN: And that's minimum wage?

JEFF: Pretty close.

CONAN: Okay. And La Grange, Illinois, I can't imagine the cost of living there is through the roof. It's not New York or San Francisco, certainly.

JEFF: It's not through the roof, but it's not - you know, what I'm saying - I know there was an example, St. Paul, the Twin Cities, raised the minimum wage for servers. I know servers, you know, are a different demographic than your fast-food workers. But what I'm saying is if you raise the minimum wage and you give people enough money, that was a perfect example where a bunch of people raised a bunch of flak about them making that kind of money, but the money flows down.

The bartender goes out and has breakfast. The guy - the breakfast place makes money. He buys more doughnuts. It all has to flow.

Sec. SOLIS: You're absolutely right.

JEFF: And I think that's the way the economy's set up, is that when you saw - when you see it dry up, you're - people don't go out to eat, and then the bartender doesn't go out and spend money. Then somebody doesn't order flowers, etcetera, etcetera. So I think it's a start, but I think it's way off the mark in what you need for an actual, livable wage and what you need for, you know, to keep the money flowing within a community.

Sec. SOLIS: You make a good point. I know in other parts of the country, in Oregon and Washington State and even in my state of California, the minimum wage is upwards of $8 and $9. And there are different cities that have actually gone as far as implementing their own livable-wage ordinance.

So the grass-roots involvement is very important here, as well. It doesn't always have to trickle down from the fed level. It took us almost a decade just to get the minimum wage passed when we did two years ago, so - three years ago. So we're working on it, but know that you have an advocate in the Department of Labor that's really looking to help our workers and helping to restore a semblance of the middle class.

JEFF: Yes, ma'am. I understand that, but if you look at what the kind of recession we're going to face, with the multi-billion dollars that we're borrowing, you're going to have to take a look at really increasing the increments that they raise this minimum wage and not over a five or 10-year period.

CONAN: And is there any plans for another step in the minimum wage?

Sec. SOLIS: I would say that my department would initiate that. I'm sure that there may be some discussion on the Hill with the Congress and the Senate, but that's something that - I mean, my job is to implement it, to make sure that people actually get paid because we know that there's a lot of wage theft. There's a lot of employers who pay under the table or underground, and we don't want that to happen. We want people to be able to have, at least at this time, what they need. And that's what the law and what the government has to guarantee. So we have to go after people that don't abide by that, as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jeff. Appreciate the call.

JEFF: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking today with Hilda Solis, the United States secretary of labor. More of your calls in a moment. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Later in the program, a closer look at swine-flu warnings. Up to 90,000 dead, more than 100 million infected. What questions do you have about swine flu? Send us an email now: talk@npr.org.

But we're talking at the moment with Hilda Solis. The Senate confirmed her as secretary of labor in late February, a former Democratic congresswoman from California. She's the 25th secretary of labor, the first Hispanic woman to serve as a permanent member of a president's Cabinet.

If you'd like to talk with her about unemployment, green jobs, worker safety, unions, minimum wage or any other issues that she faces, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Michael, Michael calling from Boston.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. I've often thought that the problem with undocumented workers in this country is really a problem with employers who employ undocumented workers to break the wages and safety and hours laws. And I'm wondering how enforcing those laws could affect the problem that people perceive with illegal immigrants. And it's occurred to me often that it would be better if, for example, a worker who reported violations of these laws would receive some legal status. That way, the problem would become part of the solution.

CONAN: An incentive, if you would.

MICHAEL: Yes.

CONAN: Secretary Solis?

Sec. SOLIS: Wow, interesting. Well, right now in the Department of Labor, we're very concerned with, obviously, wage theft and the fact that we're finding in the last few years that many employees were not receiving, you know, protections under the law through the Department of Labor.

There was actually more of a laxed view in terms of enforcement - or I wouldn't even use the word enforcement. Sometimes it was just, you know, negligence. And it's unfortunate, but we're changing that. And one of the things I'd like to - you know, that I've started now as the secretary of labor is looking at beefing up our enforcement component in Wage and Hour and also in OSHA.

We're looking at hiring over 250 investigators to help us in Wage and Hour to go out and hopefully educate the community and partners that can help us make available the information that the laws, the federal laws, regardless of who you are, you should be receiving what you are legally supposed to be obliged to receive under whatever conditions, you know, working conditions that are governed by the federal law and state laws.

And I think that one of the things - my challenge is, is making sure that people understand that the Department of Labor is open for business, that we want to work with the employees and employers, because there's a lot of good employers who are playing by the rules. And then you have unscrupulous employers that don't abide by those rules, come in, bring in people deliberately without any legal status and don't pay them their wages, overtime - and many, many abuses that go on. And we continue to see that happening.

You see it even now in this economic recession. And that's why it's even more important for the Department of Labor to notify the community, to be able to work with community-based groups, with legal groups, with charitable groups, with religious groups, to let them know that we want to work with them in partnership and identify where these problems are, and then hopefully - you talked about immigration. That's something that the president's talked about, immigration reform, comprehensive immigration reform, that I think will occur later on down the line, as soon as we get through health care reform.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thanks, bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There are Republicans like Ray Haynes from your own state of California who've described you as a doctrinaire, say you're always anti-business and pro-labor. Do you plead guilty or innocent?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sec. SOLIS: I am pro-family and I'm pro-workers and I'm pro-business. And I think, in all honesty, you can't help people find jobs if there's no business, if there's no shop open for business there.

So I want to make sure that, especially in communities where I grew up, that business - especially small, women and minority-owned - have opportunities to hire people, and big corporations also, to be able to continue to strive in our country. I want to see jobs, good-paying jobs here in the U.S. And that's been our motto here in the Department of Labor: Good jobs, safe jobs, secure jobs.

CONAN: Yet you talked about the hundreds of new people to enforce regulations, just one part, and there are hundreds more in other parts. And some employers say I've got so much red tape already. I cannot have the government around my neck. It is so hard just to deal with the government and all of this red tape.

Sec. SOLIS: I think that one of the things we would like to assist our businesses is those that want to comply and work with us to not look at us as a barrier, but - and a hindrance, but someone who can work alongside with them.

We want to level the playing field. We want to make sure that everyone has, you know, that everyone has equal opportunity working with the Department of Labor. And all I'm going to say is that, you know, enforcement is one aspect. Job training is another. We also look at OSHA standards, making sure that we can get young people into jobs.

We just rolled out a big program for Youth Build and getting young people involved in green jobs and giving them a second chance. We've run into so many young people that did not finish high school, don't even have a GED, but yet are coming back to us now as adults, 20, 21 years old and saying, you know what? I've got children now. I want to change my life. I want to take advantage of programs that the Department of Labor has. So we want to be able to provide that assistance in a multi-faceted way.

CONAN: Let's get Don on the line, Don calling from Detroit.

DON (Caller): Yes, thank you. Madam Secretary, it's an honor to speak to you. I was wondering her thoughts and opinions on Bush's defamation of the labor laws that have been enacted since 1938, especially towards semi-professionals.

I, myself am a union member. And some of our salaried people at my workforce, or just - or at my workplace, have just been devastated. They've lost 30, 40 percent of their income over the past three years just because of their changes in overtime laws. Thank you, I'll take my reply off the air.

CONAN: All right, Don, thanks very much for the call.

Sec. SOLIS: Good point from the caller. I know that right now, this is going on my sixth month in the Department of Labor, and we'll be reviewing legislation that was enacted in the past, looking at new rulemaking and looking at really getting more feedback from the different communities that have been affected because that's been part of the problem.

I think that the prior administration really didn't listen as openly to employees. So we want to, yes, take into consideration what the employer is doing but also to hear from the workforce.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in, and let's go next to Mike(ph), Mike with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, Madam Secretary, I'm glad to hear that you're on the air and taking questions. My question specifically is as someone who's self-employed, I look at how the rising cost of everything out here and now things are affected by people losing jobs with (unintelligible), and I look at - I see the rising influence of labor unions, and in some states - now Virginia isn't like this.

Virginia is a right-to-work state. If I don't want to join the union, I don't - if I'm in a job where a union is there, I don't have to, but there are states that if you're not willing to join the union and fork over part of your paycheck to them, you can't work in that particular field. What can be done about making all states right-to-work states and preventing unions from extorting money out of people by saying you can't have a job if you're not willing to be part of this union?

CONAN: Mike, I think you're talking mostly about her previous job in Congress and not her current job in the Department of Labor, but let me ask you, though, about the status of just - Mike, just a couple of facts. I think the percentage of workers in union positions in private industry is the smallest it's been since certainly the Second World War and that labor-union membership, I think overall, is declining. Any growth is in the government aspects.

But let me ask you about these - and Mike, thanks very much for the call - but the status of the card-check legislation. This is something, again, really it's in Congress, not with the Department of Labor, but this was a priority for the Obama administration, or at least for candidate Obama. Is it a priority now for the Obama administration?

Sec. SOLIS: I think it still continues to be a priority for the administration. Certainly, I as well as the president, when we were - when he was in Senate, and when I was in the House, we both co-sponsored the legislation.

We know that right now, that is - I don't want to say it's on hold, because there's still discussions that are going on. The priority right now is to make sure we get through with health-insurance reform, and then we look at the possibilities of getting something out that will help provide better protections for workers in the workplace so that they can collectively bargain.

I think that's the goal here. If people don't - if they choose not to organize or be represented, I think they should have that ability. It's certainly not going to be a proposal that I think will force people to do something one way or another, but this is not in my hands. This is in the hands of the Senate and the Congress and the communities that are out there, grass-roots efforts that are going on.

I come from a union household. My father was a shop steward for the Teamsters, and my mother was, later on in her life, after raising her children, went to work and became a member of the United Rubber Workers for Mattel Toys.

Mattel Toys no longer exists in the community where I'm at because all those jobs went to Mexico, and then they went to China. My father retired as a Teamster shop steward and fought very hard for protections in the workplace, for immigrant employees who didn't know that exposure to chemicals in the workplace could actually kill them.

My father worked very hard for retirement and pension plans, and I am a beneficiary of what I saw happening to bring people into the middle class. I was able to go to college, to have the benefits that my parents didn't have because they worked so hard but had the union to support them in those times when it was hard when they - say they were laid off. There was protections for them, there was health care for us. So, I feel very strongly that the union is one way of helping to balance those kinds of things that make it better for working class people that wouldn't otherwise have that protection.

CONAN: Let me ask you about a part of the job that may have been relatively new to you, and that is your supervision of mine safety. And that is - well, we all remember the terrible mine disasters that have happened far too often in this country's history. I know you visited a mine recently: What did you learn? Where do you see this going?

Sec. SOLIS: I went to West Virginia recently and actually went in to a mine, federal mine number two in Morgantown. And it's actually one of the largest, probably one of the oldest mines that is running right now. And it's a good co-operative effort between management, the corporation and the United Mine Workers. And I was very pleased to be able to participate in an activity to go down in a mine over 200 feet below ground level. And actually see and better understand how that whole process works and how advanced it has become. And all the safety protections that have been put in place there. And that's probably one of the more exemplary mines that I've heard about and read about.

Certainly we need to do more to help educate smaller mines' owners especially and really help to prepare the new workforce because there's a lot of folks that are going to be retiring from the mining industry itself. And we need to make sure that we bring up a whole new crew of people, if they continue to work in that area, to understand the safety and protections in the workplace. And to make sure that the government doesn't hinder progress - economic progress, but also can help move it a long.

But, hey, the bottom line is we want to make sure people go in to work that day - that they come home at night and not face a family and a tragedy because there was a fatality.

CONAN: Everybody is in favor of safety but not hinder expansion because there is a considerable perception the Obama administration is anti-coal?

Sec. SOLIS: I don't think that's true. I think it's misleading. Certainly this industry is not going to go away in 10 years or in my lifetime. And I know that there will be a continuing convergence of trying to bring it into a new age so that it's a cleaner coal that's manufactured and produced and made available to - because you think about it, we are making a slow transition here - took us, it took us years just to get to the discussion of understanding that there's global warming going on, that we should be looking at renewable energy and resources and to really put funding behind it in legislative efforts. I mean, that just happened in the last few years. And other countries are so far advanced than we are. So, we have a lot to catching up to do.

CONAN: We're speaking with the secretary of labor, Hilda Solis. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And this email from Betsy(ph) in Cape Cod: I'm a part-time community college faculty member. We earn a small fraction of the salary our full-time colleagues earn for doing the same job, and many of us get no benefits. The stimulus money that was supposed to be going to keep jobs is frequently going instead to one-time capital projects. Even those of us who Re unionized - and we are the minority - are unable in the main to strike so there is very little we can do during contract negotiations. If educating people is as important as the president said, is strengthening faculty salaries, benefits and job security part of your agenda? If so, how do you propose to do it?

Sec. SOLIS: Wow. That's a big challenge. But it's one that I understand well as a former trustee of a community college and understand well the challenges, because many states by the way, who provide most of the bulk of support for funding for community colleges, their revenue has gone down. So, I know even in my own state of California many people have been pink-slipped, laid off. They've had to reduce class size and actually turn away a number of students that want to enroll in the fall, or postpone their education. So, I understand there has to be a need to help provide assistance and leadership for community colleges. And just to give you an idea, most of the training money that DOL is putting out - a lot of it will be going in partnership with community colleges. So, there will be an opportunity to hire up, to bring in more faculty and to also expand the services that community colleges offer because they are by and large the people that entertain the most number of people who go into a higher education.

CONAN: I didn't hear a lot in there that would her happier about in conditions in which she works.

Sec. SOLIS: A lot of - I think a lot of that - certainly we want to make sure that contracts are respected, collective bargaining agreements. There's always been an issue with respect to different bargaining groups, or groups that are represented in bargaining groups, that want to be a part of that. So, I think the continuance of involvement on the part of part-time faculty members I think is a legitimate issue and should be looked at. Because as it stands, you also find that that faculty member is not as inclined to stay committed to those groups of students that they do teach because they're off to different - other -what they call, freeway traveling or teaching…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sec. SOLIS: …because they're going to find wherever they can get their salary paid. And it's unfortunate that that's what it's kind of turned to. I hope that we could end that in some way. But right now with the recession being what it is, I think it's going to be difficult.

CONAN: Let's get Ben(ph) on line. Ben with us from Baton Rouge.

BEN (Caller): Yes, hello. Thanks for taking my call, folks. When the Obama administration came into office, they encouraged people to sign up for Plum Book jobs. And I understand that about 300,000 people signed up on the Web.

CONAN: Plum Book jobs are government jobs.

BEN: Yes, government jobs that are appointed by the administration.

CONAN: Right.

BEN: And I'm one of the people who signed up. And I wonder whether any action has been taken to respond to the 300,000 people who signed up, telling them one way or another whether there's any interest in them or whether there is no interest in them.

CONAN: Ben, you're still holding your breath in other words.

BEN: Indeed I am.

CONAN: Okay. Secretary…

Sec. SOLIS: Well Ben, I know that you and many other people are very concerned right now because of what the job situation is and also wanting to serve and be a part of government - this new leadership in government. And I certainly would not take away with what your efforts are. And I know that OPM, the Office of Personnel Management, would probably be handling much of that as well as the White House personnel office. So, if there's anything, I mean, related to Department of Labor I'm sure you could send us something. But other than that, I would say be persistent. There are a lot of people as you know in this recession that are looking for jobs. In fact, the statistic that I get is that there's six applicants per one job.

CONAN: Good luck, Ben.

BEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Secretary Solis, thank you so much. Congratulations on your appointment and your confirmation. And good luck in your job.

Sec. SOLIS: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure being with you.

CONAN: Hilda Solis, the United States Secretary of Labor joined us here in Studio 3A. Coming up, a new report says swine flu could kill some 90,000 Americans. Questions and answers on the new warnings as kids head back to school. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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