Conversations Hilda L. Solis

Labor secretary sees progress, long road ahead in helping workers

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010

There have been easier times to be leading the charge for America's workforce. It's bad enough that unemployment has persisted above 9 percent. But it has also been a year marked by two horrific workplace accidents - one at a West Virginia coal mine that killed 29 and then the explosion at the BP oil rig. Both fatal incidents called into question how well the United States has been monitoring worker safety. As Labor Day approaches, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis talked about restoring morale at the department, retraining for unemployed workers and safety issues.

Q What are you doing for Labor Day?

I will be traveling with the president to Milwaukee. There will be a host of labor leaders. I'm also delivering a message directly to all American workers through the Internet. It's available at dol.gov/laborday. And I want people to talk to me. They can e-mail me at talktosolis@dol.gov.

When did you develop an interest in labor issues?

I started at a very young age. I grew up in a household [in California] where my father was a shop steward for the Teamsters union. He worked at a battery-recycling plant, which is very dangerous work - being exposed to chemicals. He made sure the union provided protection for the workers.

When I was 14, I helped him translate some of the workers' grievances from Spanish to English.

My mother, too, was a union member with the United Rubber Workers. She worked at a toy assembly plant. Thank God for the union. She got minimum wage, she got overtime and today relies very much on the pension she received.

What do you tell people you meet who are unemployed?

It's very frustrating. I'm very sympathetic to what they are going through. I send them to the One-Stop phone line (866-4-USA-DOL). There are 3,000 One-Stop offices around the country that offer help for people looking for jobs. There is information on resume writing, on education and training. It allows people to get back into the swing of getting a job.

Some experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of retraining efforts. What is your assessment?

Since March 2009, there have been approximately 39 million Americans who have gone through our training programs. They have a very good rate of placement.

The vast majority of those who participate in Workforce Investment Act training programs gain employment within a year or less. According to state reports for program year 2008, 85 percent of individuals exiting [the] Workforce Investment Act Dislocated Worker training found a job within one year.


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