Labor Secretary Hilda Solis Enthusiastic About Jobs Bill

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Labor Secretary Hilda Solis talks about the Senate’s approval earlier this week of a $15 billion jobs bill. Critics say it’s too little, too late and far more than the U.S. government can afford. Host Michel Martin speaks to Secretary Solis about whether this bill is sufficient to help American workers.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up, from New York Governor David Paterson's political troubles to the Hollywood awards, the Barbershop guys are going to give their take. That is later in the program.

But first, a newsmaker interview with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. This week, the Senate approved a $15 billion Jobs Bill. It was the first major piece of legislation the Congress has moved since Christmas, and it passed with decent bipartisan support. It now goes to the House. But critics are already taking aim from left and right with some saying it is too little too late. Other critics are saying that the $15 billion is more than the U.S. government can afford.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called the Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She joins us by phone from California. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Secretary HILDA SOLIS (Department of Labor): Hello. How are you, Michel?

MARTIN: I'm well, thank you. Now, I want to mention, you have a number of initiatives that you've been working on, and we want to talk about as many of them as we can. But I want to start with an article in today's New York Times reporting that the Obama administration plans to use the government's enormous buying power to prod companies to improve wages and benefits. Is that true and how does that work?

Sec. SOLIS: Well, I think, you know, the president spoke very clearly about expanding support for small businesses by giving a $5,000 tax credit for every new employee that a business hires for this year, 2010. And I think that that will help to incentivize businesses to give them the, you know, confidence to go ahead and move forward and bring people on.

We also will be providing - if this package is approved - also provide, you know, businesses a reimbursement through their Social Security payroll taxes, which also has a direct immediate impact for small businesses.

But one of the things I think that's very, very important is that the president is really looking at a couple of things. We know that local and state governments are in trouble. Many of their budgets are at deficit points right now. And we need to also consider that when we put together a job package. So, I know that the meeting that we had last week with the Governors Association, that was very much talked about and there seems to be a lot of bipartisan support on helping to provide those needed funds for our local government and state government.

And when I say that, we're talking about law enforcement. We're talking about health care clinics. We're also talking about teachers and things of that nature that really impact our local communities. So if these people are turned away or laid off or services are closed, that has another additional negative impact on our economy.

MARTIN: So...

Sec. SOLIS: So, we realize we have to do something now.

MARTIN: No, I understand that. But I'm specifically asking you about this whole question of whether using the contracting process to make more demands of employers. And that was the specific thing I wanted to ask you about.

Of course, there are those who would say that the more demands that you make on employers, the less flexibility you give them, the less likely they are to move forward with hiring because they're already so skittish right now. That's the question I would have about that.

Sec. SOLIS: Well, I think that for contracting, what's really important is that, you know, one of the things that we care very much about at Department of Labor is making sure that people get good wages, so that at a time when we know that people are making less, their hours are being cut back, we want to make sure if we are providing contracts that there is a balance in the workplace. That people really are able to earn a good salary. That employers are abiding by the rules and this isn't a time to kind of skirt the law.

So, that is a very important aspect of what we oversee in the Department of Labor. So, that is very important. And if we put out a lot of funds for infrastructure, for rail - high-speed rail projects, transportation and infrastructure, all those elements come into play.

And I would say that you actually provide a level of security, safety and competency in these projects when you do require that there are more - how could I say - high points that have to be met to bid for these projects and to really be able to have the right people on the job. And in many cases, sometimes you'll have a project that's completed before it's actually supposed to be built and that saves the government a lot of money as well.

MARTIN: Well, let's move on to the jobs bill. Of course, you know, there was a lot of - a lot of people were very appreciative that the Senate actually finally moved forward on some kind of legislation to address the unemployment situation. But, of course, there are those who still say this is really just a gesture.

Here's the Reverend Jesse Jackson who we caught up with in London yesterday. This is what he had to say.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (President and Founder, RainbowPUSH Coalition): For about 20 million Americans unemployed, about 40 million in poverty, it does not correspond to the size of the problem. Wall Street got the bailout, but the working people are really getting a gesture by comparison.

MARTIN: How do you respond to that, madam secretary?

Sec. SOLIS: Oh, I would say that, first of all, we are still in the process of pushing more of our recovery moneys out that was approved last year in February. And I would say that about, you know, 65 percent to 70 percent of that money has gone out, but we still have a lot of those projects that have been encumbered. And so, you really haven't seen, for example, construction projects fully on the ground. That will also be impacting us in the next few months, in the next two quarters.

So you're going to see a lot of activity. A lot of investments that the president has made that have been very, very targeted to help incentivize more job creation, whether it's in the area of providing small businesses with more loans, for example. That alone, $20 billion have been made available to 42,000 small businesses. So, that is something that's unprecedented.

So, we're hoping that that with the confidence in the market, which we see now. Because we're seeing that slippage now in the job loss, where last year we saw 700,000 job loss, now it's 20,000. That's not good enough, but we can see that we have to build confidence.

And the president has put those mechanisms in place, I believe, to help structure that recovery that we need. He also put 50 billion in to help prevent the cuts in Medicaid, 60 billion in funding for education that the governors use to help provide additional safety net for those people that are teachers. A lot of that is helping to keep people on the job as well. And we know that 31 states also had benefited from the high-speed rail projects that I talked about.

And those are projects that are going to go well beyond the Recovery Act. They're going to probably be five and 10-year projects. So, people will be working. Forty eight advanced battery and electric drive projects have been funded in 20 states worth $2.4 billion. In transportation and construction projects, 12,500 projects have been funded. And as I said, not all of them have been - how can I say - fully implemented because of weather conditions, you know, the snow is pretty bad back in the Northeast.

MARTIN: Oh, we know.

Sec. SOLIS: And you can see the highway construction and airport projects coming about. So, I think that there is a lot of things that have yet to be realized. But the public needs to be confident. The president is working very, very hard. The first thing he did - item that he took up was the Recovery Act. And I can say to you that there are many Republicans, as well as Democrats that know that this has saved anywhere from 2 million to 2.4 million jobs.

And we hope that at the end of the Recovery Act, that's the end of this year 2010, that we will have created well over 3.5 million jobs.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. We're talking about the jobs bill, and we're also talking about the current state of the economy and the efforts that the Obama administration is making along with members of Congress to address this situation.

You know, to that end, I know you know probably better than anybody that African-Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by this recession. Latinos are the largest group of people, by numbers, who are unemployed and the unemployment rate among African-Americans is much higher than the general population.

Now, you've talked about this in the past and you've talked about the educational gap as one reason that this, you know, for these circumstances. But that takes a long time to fix. And there are some who'd argue now that these groups - that there should be efforts that are specifically targeted to these groups. In the same way, for example, that, you know, the H1N1 vaccine was initially targeted toward the groups that were most likely to get sick. So, there are some who say a similar philosophy ought to apply to the groups that are disproportionately affected by the recession. What do you say to that?

Sec. SOLIS: Well, I would say that we have attempted in many ways to try to target our funding. A lot of our money, as you know, is formula based. So, it's really hard to just pull out an amount of money and thrust it in a certain direction. But I'll tell you what we did here for green jobs - that we had received $750 million for job training programs. A good chunk of that money, I would say anywhere from 100 to 200 million, was targeted to communities that were hardest hit. And we just recently issued grants in the green renewable energy area.

The targeted areas that had 15 percent unemployment and higher - and we particularly asked for new partnerships to be developed that were reflective of community-based organizations and also addressing the diversity in these communities. So, I had just met with the Black Caucus this week earlier, we talked about it, and many of them were very happy that we used this formula. And I know that they are now talking to other agencies about using these kind of innovative processes, so that we can really get the money out to those very high need areas.

And I, in particular, asked my staff as I became secretary of Labor to look at our guidance, to look at how we could describe the conditions in our economy, so that we could make that adjustment, so if you saw a high number of dislocated people in rural communities, that we really make sure that we went out of our way to target those particular areas. And, you know, these are all competitive grants, so it's very hard. Sometimes our local communities out there are not prepared or have the technical assistance to put these proposals together. So, we're attempting to do as much as we can beforehand, before we issue the guidance, to tell them exactly what we're looking for, and to bring people together, provide technical assistance. And for those people that didn't get grants, we want to help them in the next round of funding. But more importantly, what I will tell you is I get criticized so much for people saying well, Secretary, what is a green job? We're not ready for this. And I'm saying, yes, you are, you are ready.

And we had so many applications, we couldn't even begin to fund we were only able to fund 20 percent, and the 80 percent of the people that did - the communities that did put proposals together would qualify for funding if we had money. But we need bipartisan support. We need the Republicans to get off the (unintelligible) and say, look, we support these projects because we know it's an investment in our human capital, but there will be jobs that will be established here in our neighborhoods, that won't be outsourced, that will help to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and also create energy conservation methods that will draw down the cost of energy, especially for minority communities.

MARTIN: And finally, Madam Secretary, and we've only just scratched the surface of all of the things that you're working on, so we hope you'll come back and talk to us again about all the other things you're working on, but how do you respond - in the minute that we have left - to the argument that people on both the left and the right are making now: that this administration was just too late to prioritize unemployment, that it has been I don't know if the word is distracted - but so preoccupied with other issues like health care to the point where it is not focused enough on this very real bread-and-butter issue for so many people right now who are out of work?

Sec. SOLIS: Yeah. You know, I understand people's anger and anguish. I've been out there in 30 states, been travelling rural America, where hardest hit communities - Native Americans, blacks, and Latinos are affected. And I'll tell you that one of the frustrations I have is that this is the first time that so much money through the American Recovery Act has been provided in these programs that existed many years ago. So, it's hard to get our communities to understand and get ready for that transition. And just getting money out quickly was a very big task. We were able to...

MARTIN: Okay.

Sec. SOLIS: ...put 317,000 students into the Summer Youth Employment Program. And we originally thought only a 150,000 would participate.

MARTIN: Well, Madam Secretary, we have to leave it there for now. We hope you'll come back and see us. That was Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She was kind enough to join us by phone from her home in California. Madam Secretary, we thank you for speaking with us.

Sec. SOLIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us. Barbershop guys and the week in politics is next.

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