Outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. AP Images.
Hilda Solis recently announced that she is leaving her post as secretary of labor, a job that she has held since February 2009. Solis has spent her career in politics, serving in both the California Assembly and Senate; in the US House of Representatives, and, since 2009, as President Obama’s labor secretary. She was the first Latina woman in the California State Senate and the first to serve as a cabinet secretary in DC.
Over the years, Solis has championed such causes as environmental justice, the rights of farmworkers, expansion of healthcare access and an increase in the minimum wage.
Here, she looks back on her four years as Labor Secretary, and outlines the challenges that remain.
Sasha Abramsky: You came in four years ago in an economic free fall. What were your immediate priorities?
Hilda Solis: First of all was to stop the hemhorraging of job loss. That was my immediate concern; making certain that we utilized all tools available to helping people who were losing jobs, and helping businesses too—because they were shuttering around the country. And different parts of the country were harder hit, like Ohio, Michigan—Detroit. You saw a tremendous loss of manufacturing jobs. We had to get out there quickly and provide whatever training dollars we could to provide opportunity for people to get trained; and the extension of unemployment insurance was critical; that in and of itself is a stimulus. For every dollar that is spent by a recipient, two additional dollars are generated in the community; it helps to keep businesses open. People spend that money.
Did you have time back in February ‘09 to think about longer-term priorities?
We knew we had to revamp our programs. The president was able to get the American Recovery Act funding out. For the first time in a long time we were able to fund programs that we know worked. Extension of assistance to dislocated workers, and extension of benefits that went up to 99 weeks for some states and individuals. And giving summer youth employment a priority. That’s so critical and hadn’t been done in a decade. Youth suffer tremendously in a recession, especially young men and women of color. Typically, during recessionary times, particular groups suffer higher rates of unemployment—African Americans, and Latinos, and in some cases other minority groups. If you don’t have a high level of training or education you’re going to fall into that category. We can change those trends by getting more people into job training programs—which we did starting in ‘09, we actually served 1.7 million people, and provided them with crucial training programs and assistance, and about one million earned what we call industry-recognized credentials to help them continue to be a part of this very competitive job market.
Are we where you hoped to be four years after you took the job?
When I started we knew we had to stop the job losses, bring down the unemployment rate and get assistance to those areas hardest hit. Not only did we provide job training, unemployment insurance benefits, but we took a great responsibility in helping to provide better enforcement policies for worker protection and safety. That had been absent for almost a decade. We decided it was going to be a big priority. Under ARRA money we were able to hire about 700 new investigators in our wage-and-hour division, OSHA, mine safety, health administration and just about all our enforcement agencies, including EBSA—the employment benefit security administration—all meant to help working-class people, people in the middle who were being squeezed and losing homes, assets, pensions, losing their jobs.