Labor Secretary Says Making Sure Undocumented Workers Get Paid Will Be Priority

By Victor Epstein | April 29, 2009 | 5:00 PM EDT
Paramus, N.J. (AP) - Ensuring undocumented workers get paid and improving worker safety are two priorities for the Department of Labor, its first Hispanic secretary said Wednesday.
Hilda Solis visited a green jobs event in northern New Jersey, where she said unpaid wages will continue to be a problem for day laborers until comprehensive immigration reform is undertaken at the federal level. But she cautioned that stabilizing the economy and health care reform must come first for President Barack Obama's administration.
Day laborers, many of them Hispanic, are sometimes denied payment and are afraid to press for wages when they're in the country illegally. Solis, who took office Feb. 24, said she takes this "very seriously."
"We're going to have people going out in the field and investigating," Solis said, noting that she differs from her predecessor, Elaine Chao, in this approach. "We're going to be more robust in this area and also with respect to OSHA."
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is responsible for enforcing workplace safety and health regulations. It's part of the Department of Labor.
Solis spoke privately with a group of local Hispanic leaders, including Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, about workplace safety before the event.
"In terms of Latinos in the work force, we're probably the ones that are faced with the most fatalities and injuries," Solis told them, citing the many Hispanics in the construction industry.
Solis said the national discussion of comprehensive immigration reform will begin this summer. She said goals include eliminating the underground economy that has sprouted up around illegal workers and preventing the separation of families that include children who are U.S. citizens and others who have not been granted legal entry.
Solis and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine toured the Paramus training academy of Local 164 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which offers instruction in solar panel and wind turbine installation.
Solis lauded Corzine for his leadership role in increasing solar array installations in New Jersey and in pursuing federal funds for the unemployed. New Jersey's master energy plan calls for the creation of 20,000 green jobs by 2020.
Unemployment in the Garden State rose for the 14th straight month in March to 8.2 percent, less than the U.S. rate of 8.5 percent.
"The most important thing we have to do is lift the overall economy because a rising tide lifts all boats," Corzine said.
Solis and Corzine also met with seven unemployed workers. Solis told them that green jobs and the health care and IT industries will be leaders in job creation in coming years. The workers told them that it's hard to make ends meet with an unemployment check in New Jersey because of the high cost of living.
The median household income for a family of four in New Jersey is $94,441, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Solis is at least the second high-level member of the Obama administration in the past month to appear with Corzine, who trailed Republican gubernatorial challenger Chris Christie in a Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey poll released Wednesday. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference with Corzine on ship pollution March 30 in Newark.
Ensuring undocumented workers get paid and improving worker safety are two priorities for the Department of Labor, its first Hispanic secretary said Wednesday.