In testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee, Solis touted an increase in the number of investigators conducting reviews of private-sector safety and pay practices. The Obama administration budget released on February 1 restores the enforcement staff to its 2001 levels.
Solis argued that it is imperative during tough economic times to crack down on employers who cheat workers out of wages and permit unsafe work environments.
“One way of combating that is to make sure we have troops on the ground,” she said.
She implied that enforcement was lax during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration. She compared reorienting the large agency to changing the direction of an aircraft carrier.
“We’re turning things around in the Department of Labor,” Solis said. “We’re moving every single day. Our rudders are on.”
Worker training also is a priority, according to Solis. She said the Obama administration supports reauthorization this year of the Workforce Investment Act, the law that governs many postsecondary training programs. The administration also is seeking to make the federal training system more streamlined, innovative and responsive to local hiring needs, Solis said.
Republicans on the committee are concerned that the agency—and, more broadly, congressional Democrats—will run business aground with new rules and regulations.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, said that employers in his district are hesitant to expand because they’re leery of the potential bottom-line impact of Democratic proposals to strengthen unions and overhaul the U.S. health care system.
“They don’t know what their costs are,” Roe said. “[The Labor Department is] hiring, but small businesses aren’t hiring.”
Solis also spent time defending the administration’s $787 billion stimulus measure, which Republicans ridiculed for failing to halt a rise in the unemployment rate from 7.7 percent in January 2009 to the current 10 percent.
“The American people want to know: Where are the jobs?” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia.
Solis said that the recovery package “has made a difference,” citing an administration report that it has created 640,000 jobs. She also asserted that infrastructure spending, such as a high-speed rail project in Ohio, will continue to foster employment after stimulus money runs out.
“The planning going into that rail system will go on for years,” she said.
Solis received a respite when she fielded questions from the other side of the aisle, where she was credited with returning the Labor Department to what Democrats see as its core mission.
“Instead of looking the other way, this administration is holding reckless employers accountable for putting their workers in danger,” said Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House labor committee. “The new department has also made strides to protect families’ paychecks from unscrupulous employers.”
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-California, praised Solis’ department for slapping the largest Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine in history—$87 million—on oil refiner BP for an explosion at a Texas facility in 2005 that killed 15 people.
“We are taking our job very seriously,” Solis said. “It does send a message to the industry overall.”
When it comes to policing its allies, however, the Labor Department is not so rigorous, according to Rep. John Kline, R-Minnesota. He asserted that the agency is reducing support for the division that keeps an eye on unions.
“I hope some of those troops on the ground go into the Office of Labor-Management Standards,” Kline said. He accused the administration of fostering a “culture of union favoritism.”
Solis said that she is trying to make the office “leaner, maybe a little more efficient,” without reducing union oversight.
Solis assured Kline that the department would “root out” union fraud and embezzlement.
Solis told reporters after the hearing that it will take time for the department to revamp enforcement.
“Our resources are very limited,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of valuable time and staffing in the last decade.”
—Mark Schoeff Jr.