Big Shoes to Fill: Solis’ Departure Calls for Nomination of Workers’ Rights Advocate

Who could fill Solis’s shoes and demonstrably make progress on policies impacting vulnerable workers?

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. (Local510.org)

Last Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis resigned from her position after serving in the role since the earliest days of Obama’s first term. Her departure sticks out like a sore thumb in a week when President Obama took heat for not appointing enough women to his cabinet as he begins his second term. In addition to adding gender diversity, Solis was also the first Latina to ever serve in a Presidential cabinet. As she wrote in her resignation letter, “Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader.”

A former four-term member of Congress, there is word that Solis plans to run for office again in Southern California, possibly for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Beyond the symbolic relevance of her presence in the Cabinet, Solis’s leadership at the DOL was significant for workers’ rights policy, and thus the question of who will replace her is one that labor and employment rights groups throughout the country are looking at with concern. As Solis notes in her resignation letter, she was a strong proponent of expanding unemployment insurance, job training programs, and implementing provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

One policy Solis does not mention in her resignation letter is Department of Labor regulations as they pertain to live-in caregivers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 has never required overtime or minimum wage provisions to apply to caregivers who work inside private homes to prepare meals, assist with bathing and grooming, and run errands.

Labor groups trying to reform this exclusion found a friend in Solis, who helped develop new regulations that would apply federal minimum wage and overtime laws to caregivers. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new rules would also require wage-and-hour recordkeeping requirements. There are some 2.5 million in-home caregivers in the United States, most of them women of color, and two-thirds of whom would be affected by the new rule.

While the new regulations have been drafted and have received mostly positive public comment, they have yet to move to the next step—adoption by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House—progress that NELP and other groups will pressure the next DOL Secretary to address. Ideally the rule would pass while Solis is still serving as DOL (her last day is likely in February though this information couldn’t easily be ascertained). Rewire tried to reach Solis for comment about the new FLSA regulations soon after her resignation last week but was told she is not currently granting interviews.

“Solis has been a real champion for low wage and immigrant workers generally so she helped move these new FLSA rules through her department,” Cathy Ruckelshaus, Legal Co-Director of NELP, told Rewire. “We are hopeful the rules will be in final form before the new DOL Secretary actually starts. But whoever the new secretary is should want to carry on this new legacy.”

Such regulatory reforms are a first step in granting deeper federal recognition and protection to caregiving work in the United States—a fast-growing sector that receives low compensation, is dominated by women of color and in general is rendered invisible by labor protections and society generally. Only 15 states currently require both minimum wage and overtime pay for live-in caregivers. According to Ruckelhaus, however, since the FLSA doesn’t require these provisions, many states ignore them.

As of Monday, the DOL has changed regulations under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) expanding a parent’s ability to take leave to care for an adult child. This may indicate that the FLSA regulations will also be finalized before her last day.

So who could fill Solis’s shoes and demonstrably make progress on this and a host of other issues impacting working people? The National Journal listed some potential candidates back in November, most of them women including: Maria Echaveste, formerly deputy chief of staff for President Clinton; Olena Berg Lacy, assistant secretary for pension and welfare benefits under President Clinton; and Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

NELP Executive Director Christine Owens told Rewire via email, “[NELP} doesn’t have a specific candidate in mind to replace Secretary Solis, but we feel that whoever it is should be committed to advancing the rights and interests of all workers, with special concern and attention to the communities of workers most vulnerable to exploitation [including] low wage, immigrant, women and people of color.”

Similarly, Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, hopes for a new DOL Secretary that can build on groundwork Solis has put in place. “Secretary Solis focused on vulnerable workers, and we need to boldly continue that as more and more American workers are in precarious environments,” Poo told Rewire via email.

It’s now incumbent on the President to make a bold choice on behalf of workers, as well as to build the diversity of his second-term cabinet.