Department of Labor nears 100th birthday
By Hilda L. Solis Guest columnist August 31, 2012 12:22PM
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 3, 2012 6:09AM
For many people in Indiana and nationwide, Labor Day symbolizes the end of summer, back-to-school sales and a fun three-day weekend.
But it’s more than that for me.
This is my fourth Labor Day as the nation’s labor secretary and the U.S. Department of Labor’s 99th. It will turn 100 in March.
I’ve come to realize that, throughout the history of this vitally important federal agency, Labor Day is and always will be every day.
Across the country and, indeed, in Indiana, the Labor Department touches families and lives from infancy to retirement.
We ensure that working parents can care for newborns under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
We’re also the folks who protect your pensions.
Health and safety in the workplace? That’s us.
A paycheck that just doesn’t add up? We are your first call.
Job training after a layoff, protecting civilian jobs for service members returning stateside, guarding against discrimination at companies that do work for the federal government? That’s us, too.
We operate the IndyPendence and Atterbury Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers in Indianapolis and Atterbury, along with 120 others nationwide, making us one of the largest providers of education and training for at-risk youth. All that, and so much more, is the bread and butter of the Department of Labor.
For decades, our employees, not just in Washington, D.C., but the 120 here in Indiana, have worked behind the scenes as mine inspectors, wage-and-hour investigators, statisticians, benefit advisers, workers’ compensation clerks and policy planners.
And, in so many instances, we’ve been ahead of the times. When world conflicts heated up, the Labor Department ensured war-time production of battleships ahead of schedule.
In the 1920s, long before there was a civil rights movement or something called “the glass ceiling,” our Women’s Bureau — the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women — investigated and reported on the status of female African-American workers.
Speaking of glass ceilings: The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet was Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. She was the mastermind behind much of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression. She wrote the Social Security Act, created unemployment insurance, legalized a minimum wage and overtime protections, and wove the nation’s social safety net on which millions of workers still rely.
Today, our work is even more critical, and more evident, right here in Indiana. Locally, our impact has been real and significant. In the past year alone, we have recovered more than $1.9 million in back wages for more than 5,000 workers in the state, and our actions achieved more than $109 million in monetary results for employee benefit plans, such as 401(k)s, helping more than 57,000 plan participants.
That’s money they rightfully earned, but were denied. And that’s money that goes right back into the Indiana economy.
Although there is still much work to be done, unemployment in Indiana has dropped to 8.3 percent, down a full percentage point since last year.
Since 1882, when Labor Day was first celebrated in New York City, and 1894, when it became a federal holiday, the first Monday in September has been set aside to honor and celebrate the American worker.
We call it Labor Day, and its message is simple: The great American worker is what makes America great.
Hilda L. Solis is the
U.S. secretary of labor