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by Ana Radelat, AARP VIVA, June 2009
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, 51, has made a career of beating the odds and breaking through cultural barriers. The daughter of immigrants—her father was born in Mexico and her mother in Nicaragua—she was the first in her family to finish college. She was also the first Hispanic woman elected to California’s state senate.
Known for her uncompromising nature, Solis defied party warnings against challenging a more conservative Democratic incumbent and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000. There she quickly earned distinction for her zeal in fighting for health care coverage for the poor and elderly, environmental protections, and labor reforms.
She learned early about labor rights. Her father, who worked at a battery recycling plant in California’s San Gabriel Valley, organized immigrant co-workers to gain improved health care benefits.
Confirmed by the Senate on February 24, Solis has already begun to change federal labor policy, and she has vowed the federal government will investigate the withholding of wages from day laborers and toughen work safety rules.
In an exclusive interview with AARP Segunda Juventud, she says her new job is to help “get our nation back on the right track” by protecting the health and security of workers, creating jobs, and increasing unemployment benefits and training.
Why do you think President Barack Obama chose you for the position of labor secretary? Why did you accept?
I think President Obama wanted to have the right fit for his different cabinet positions, and I believe that experience is what mattered most to him. In my case, I have been working to improve the overall quality of life for working families for most of my adult life, and I think that experience resonated with the President.
I saw the prospect of serving as labor secretary as a wonderful opportunity to further the policies that I have been fighting for my whole life, and I had to seize it. My parents were both union members, and I grew up hearing how important it was to empower workers and have fair labor practices. It’s something I feel very strongly about; it’s something that I fought for in Congress and will continue to fight for as secretary of labor.
I also saw this as an opportunity to get our nation back on the right track. People are hurting right now....
As a daughter of immigrants, you were given a lot of responsibility early in life. How does this background influence the way you view your new job?
From very early on, I was instilled with the values of hard work and education, the values that helped my parents get ahead in life. My father was a member of the Teamsters Union in California, where he helped to organize better health care for workers. My mother worked for more than 20 years on an assembly line.
I think this experience has helped shape my views about labor and justice. I know how important labor standards, safety, and fair pay are for workers and their families. That experience will help shape my decisions as secretary of labor.
You have always been interested in expanding health care to the uninsured and in improving health care coverage for vulnerable populations. What will your role be in the administration’s efforts to overhaul the health care system?
One of my priorities has always been expanding access to quality, affordable health care, and I believe health care reform will play a key role in our economic future. The United States spent an estimated $2.4 trillion on health care in 2008, and this spending is expected to consume a greater and greater share of our economy in years to come. We spend a higher share of our national income on health care than any other economically advanced country, yet we don’t have better health outcomes.
Today, American families are confronted by an urgent health care crisis. They are paying more and more for health care but getting less and less in return. We need to change that and make health care accessible. Our ability to do this will define the future for American families and American workers, and I will work to protect the health of our workers. After all, without healthy people we can’t have healthy workers. As secretary of labor, I want to do everything within my power to improve our health system.
What can the Labor Department do to help the administration battle rising unemployment? Are there any programs that are targeted to classes of workers—like Hispanics—who are losing their jobs at a faster rate than the population at large?
Unemployment is something we are struggling with currently. The African American and Latino communities particularly have been hit hard, with rates of 13.3 percent and 11.4 percent respectively, as compared to overall unemployment, which stands at 8.5 percent.
By enacting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we have taken an important step to save and create millions of jobs while also making important investments for future economic growth. The Labor Department is committed to actively supporting workers during this difficult time by providing billions of dollars to increase the level of unemployment benefits and extend their duration. Funds are also being used to increase the opportunities for workers to receive training.
What are your personal goals at the department?
We have an opportunity to rebuild our communities in a more equitable manner that is inclusive of all Americans regardless of socioeconomic background. My primary goal is to make sure we do not miss this opportunity. I want to protect and provide workers with security in their workplace. I also want to make sure that workers’ pensions are safe. I want to create youth training opportunities, and I want to make sure veterans and people with disabilities have an opportunity to benefit from our greening of the economy.
What do you think the administration should do to safeguard and strengthen pensions?
President Obama is committed to ensuring Social Security is solvent and viable for the American people, now and in the future. The President’s plan calls for the elimination of all income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year. Furthermore, the plan will create “automatic workplace pensions” for employers who do not currently offer a retirement plan. [They will be required] to enroll their employees in a direct-deposit IRA account that is compatible with existing direct-deposit payroll systems. Employees may opt out if they choose.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
I have had so many great opportunities in my life that have defined who I am. From being the first in my family to attend and graduate college [to] being the first Latina elected to the California State Senate. Being awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for my pioneering work on environmental justice issues. Representing the 32nd Congressional District as a member of Congress, as well as working on legislation that has directly impacted working families, women and youth, and also the environment. However, I must admit that being asked by President Obama to serve in his cabinet is truly humbling and an honor because we are in a momentous time in our country’s history, and I know that the Labor Department is playing a critical role.
President Obama has chosen Hispanics to fill key posts in the administration. Do you think those appointees, yourself included, should use the opportunity to help a community that has not been given much representation at the highest levels of government?
I envision my role as labor secretary as being a voice for the voiceless, and I will certainly help bring attention to how communities of color and low-income people are being disproportionately affected by issues. But I also want to point out that we envision something bigger as an administration. We want to create ladders of opportunity to lift people out of poverty. This common goal is good for Latinos, the community I am a part of, but it’s also good for other communities around the nation. If we take care of the least among us, we are ultimately helping our nation as a whole.
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