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Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor at National Employment Lawyers Association 22nd Annual Convention

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Location: New Orleans, LA

Thank you, NELA. Good morning. Buenos dias! I'm so happy to be with you here in the great city of New Orleans to talk about our shared mission to fight inequality and discrimination in the American workplace.

Let me start by recognizing a few of the trailblazers here with us today. Judge U.W. Clemon made history as the first African-American federal judge in Alabama. I'm honored to be here with him.

I want to acknowledge Jackie Barrien who is doing extraordinary work as chair of the EEOC. Jackie joined me and Attorney General Holder at the Department of Labor last week for a panel focused on removing employment barriers for the formerly incarcerated. We have more Americans in prison today than at any time in our history. Chairwoman Barrien has been an incredible partner in our effort to give these Americans a second chance to find work and a make a positive contribution to society.

Finally, I want to thank my dear friend Pat Chiu for introducing me. It's a pleasure to have my colleague, mi amiga, and my fellow California girl Pat working by my side at DOL.

When I look around this room today, a Spanish phrase comes to mind: Nos conocemos. We know one another.

Many NELA members are now on my staff, and many of your priorities are my priorities as the Secretary of Labor.

When I interviewed Pat, her incredible work at NELA jumped off her CV. It let me know she was a kindred spirit. Pat played a key leadership role with NELA for so many years. She continues to play that role for me as the head of our Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs

OFCCP is a civil rights agency in the Labor Department. It requires federal contractors to follow non-discrimination laws. Pat and her staff are leading the way in our efforts to end pay discrimination faced by women o increase the hiring of women and minorities in construction and to improve job opportunities for veterans and people with disabilities.

President Obama likes to say, "We do big things." Under Pat's leadership, OFCCP is doing big things to open the doors of opportunity for nearly one quarter of the American workforce. So thanks for sharing Pat with me, and thanks for inviting both of us to New Orleans for your convention this year.

I know you were here in 2007 to support the city's efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. I understand you worked with Habitat for Humanity and built five houses in three days, in addition to holding your convention. A lot of lawyers can talk the talk. But NELA: You walk the walk.

Your clients are more than a paycheck to you. They are people in need of help and support. You may be in private practice, but you are doing a public service every morning you go to work. My friends, amigos, you give lawyers a good name.

In many ways, this has been an emotional return to New Orleans for me. The triple blow of Katrina, the recession and last year's devastating oil spill would have brought almost any city to its knees. But not New Orleans.

Here you see a people rebuilding their great city and cleaning up the coast. Here, you see workers fighting to recover lost jobs. Here, you see communities working to regain their economic independence. Here, we are reminded that the American dream can be redeemed over and over again -- as long as you're willing to fight for it.

The people of New Orleans give me enormous hope -- and you honor them with your presence here today.

A couple of months ago, we marked the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spoil. Last year, I traveled across the Gulf Coast to meet with many of the people and communities devastated by the largest oil spill in American history.

FEMA had primary jurisdiction. Some folks in Washington even warned me to lay low. The Department of Labor, they said, usually wasn't a major player in a disaster of this type. But when I stood on the beach and saw clumps of toxic black crude wash up on to the shore and endanger workers, I knew they were wrong. When I visited a local church and met with fishermen and shrimpers who were praying for answers after losing their livelihoods, I knew the Labor Department had a major role to play.

I made a commitment to stand by the people of the Gulf Coast to ensure:

* that BP protected its workers from health and safety hazards;
* that our One Stop Career Centers stood ready to help displaced workers find jobs;
* that workers received the pay and the benefits they deserved; and
* that BP lived up to its legal obligation to ensure the safety of those working on the cleanup effort.

I'm proud to say that we were on the ground from the very beginning... and we never left.

OSHA conducted more than 4,200 site visits -- on land and in boats -- to make sure BP and its contractors provided the right kind of safety equipment to cleanup crews. OSHA also required BP to provide safety training to more than 47,000 workers involved in the cleanup effort. We made sure the instructions were provided in languages that all 47,000 cleanup workers could understand.

In addition, my Wage & Hour Division conducted more than 40 investigations related to the oil spill. Since then, we've collected $420,000 in back wages for more than 300 employees who worked on oil spill-related projects.

Later today, I'll be meeting with many of the community leaders and advocates I saw last year. We will assess the continuing needs in this area to hear how we can make workers whole again.

NELA: I know this is our shared concern. I know many of you see yourselves as "private attorneys general." You've dedicated your lives to enforce the legal rights of vulnerable workers.

I want to talk a little bit today about how we're trying to make a big impact with limited resources at the Department of Labor. I know many of you are concerned about the fallout of the Supreme Court's ruling in Walmart v. Duke.

I told you Pat's office is a vital civil rights agency within the federal government. I think that's especially true in the wake of this ruling.

Here's an important point: The Supreme Court's Walmart ruling was limited to class actions under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. But my department's efforts to eliminate workplace discrimination in America don't depend on this rule.

We enforce an executive order that says federal contractors can't discriminate. We have oversight over any company doing at least $10,000 of government business a year. This means that Pat's office can obtain class-wide relief for victims of pay discrimination without having to file a class action lawsuit.

The Walmart decision won't affect our ability to address pay disparities on a broad scale -- even if our lawyers have to tweak some of their legal arguments based on the reasoning used in that case.

Here's my bottom line: If you do more than 10K of business with the federal government, my department will enforce civil rights laws on behalf of your workers. This absolutely includes pay discrimination. When DOL seeks a remedy for pay discrimination, we automatically seek back wages for all affected employees at a company. We feel this is an important way to level the playing field for pay disparities affecting women.

Today in America, women are paid on average of 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. For African-American women, it's 70 cents on the dollar. For Latina women, it's 60 cents on the dollar.

This means that each time the average woman starts a new job, she starts from a lower base salary. Over time, that pay gap becomes wider and wider. If you look at what a woman loses in earnings from the start of her career to the end, she stands to lose $380,000 over her lifetime. That means $150 less in her weekly paycheck. It means nearly $8,000 less at the end of the year.

The problem doesn't just affect women. It affects families, too. It's 20 percent less food they can put on the table, 20 percent less that they can spend on their kids' education, 20 percent less to pay the gas bill.

The bottom line: When women start at a disadvantage, they stay at a disadvantage. And we all lose.

So OFCCP is dramatically shifting its enforcement priorities. Last year, 14 percent of their investigations involved compensation cases. This year, that number will go up to between 20 and 40 percent.

Last year, the Paycheck Fairness Act was just two votes short of passing in Congress. The Obama administration remains committed to this legislation.

We need to close loopholes that give employers unjustified defenses to discrimination. We need to strengthen the ban on retaliation against those who complain about unequal pay. We need to rescind the Bush-era guidelines that prevent effective enforcement of equal pay laws.

And we need to create more flexible workplaces so women don't have to choose between motherhood and a fulfilling career. My Wage & Hour division has begun enforcing a new provision in the Affordable Care Act that guarantees break time for nursing mothers. For the first year of a baby's life, employers with at least 50 workers must provide a private location and reasonable break time for nursing mothers.

At the Labor Department, we are also focusing more of our Wage & Hour cases on what we call enterprise-wide enforcement. If an employer is violating the law in one workplace, we think it's likely they're engaging in the same practice in other company locations.

So we're seeking injunctions to ensure that an employer complies with the law across all of its operations. And we're seeking back wages across all of a company's workplaces.

In Ohio, we found overtime violations at a supplier of heating and cooling products, and we obtained back wages for employees at 520 different locations.

In California, we investigated a company that sells biometric equipment to police and government agencies. We obtained back wages for the California workers and company employees in five other states.

One reason we've been so successful is because I hired 350 new wage and hour investigators as Labor Secretary. When I was nominated, I told employers, "There's a new sheriff in town." And I meant it. But I truly believe that most employers want to comply with the law. However, a few bad apples can really spoil the bunch.

We've focused our enforcement efforts on companies that see violating the Fair Labor Standards Act as an acceptable corporate strategy. I'll be blunt: Anyone who views back wages and fines for pay violations as the cost of doing business is going to have big problems with my Department.

These bottom-feeder companies are depressing wages for all American workers. It's immoral and illegal to seek a competitive advantage by paying workers less than the minimum wage. It's immoral and illegal to cheat your workers out of overtime pay.

Protecting the rights of workers has been a passion of mine for over 20 years. I grew up in a home where both of my parents were immigrant union members. They taught me the value of a hard day's work.

My father is of Mexican descent and my mother is Nicaraguan. My father will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farm worker and a railroad worker. My mother worked at a battery recycling plant and raised seven kids.

Growing up in the La Puente, California, the air was not always fit to breathe. In my zip code, we had one Superfund site, 17 gravel pits, and 5 polluted landfills -- including one in the backyard of an elementary school. Nine miles away in area code 90210 -- Beverly Hills -- there were zero landfills, zero gravel pits, and zero chemical plants. I grew up with a strong understanding that there were "haves" and "have-nots" in this world.

My father was a Teamsters shop steward. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and helping him translate the workers' grievances from Spanish to English. Their pay was meager. The work was dirty. The conditions were unsafe. It wasn't fair. They taught me that injustices in the workplace exist and that workers need a voice on the job.

So, when the President asked me to join his Cabinet and to lead the Labor Department, I wasn't only humbled, I was also honored. I believe in my agency's mission. I believe in improving working conditions, safeguarding workers' rights, and advancing job opportunities for all Americans.

Not many people know that the Department of Labor is the second-largest enforcement agency in the federal government. Only the DOJ is bigger. Under my watch, we've recovered million of dollars in back wages for working men and women all over this country. We've performed a record number of workplace inspections in places where almost 6 million people are employed. I believe we've saved many lives.

These are protections that working people need. They are protections they deserve. And I'm proud to be a part of an administration that is delivering on a promise of justice and equality.

Workers across the country are struggling to get basic employment protections under our laws. During these difficult economic times, every dollar that workers are entitled to is even more crucial.

NELA: I know we care about the same things. So let me close by saying: Thank you for championing what is decent, fair and just. Thank you for using your skill and education to make a difference. Thank you for fighting the good fight.

I'm proud to be here today. Good morning, God bless, and have a wonderful convention


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