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

Victor Epstein, AP, April 29, 2009

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.

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