Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Civil Rights Center's Equal Opportunity Forum,
Crystal City, VA,
Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Good morning everyone. Buenos dias and welcome to Washington.

Naomi, thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you for your leadership and good work at the Department of Labor. You're doing a terrific job!

I had planned to begin my remarks today by telling you about my experience at the dedication of the Dr. King memorial on the National Mall. But evidently Mother Nature had a different plan and that story will have to wait a few weeks. But that's ok, because it's still fitting that we reflect on the spirit of Dr. King today.

The opening of the memorial on the National Mall, a first memorial on the National Mall dedicated to an individual that was not a president, will take place almost 50 years after Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It reminds us of the importance of ensuring that civil rights and equal opportunity in the United States. The idea that an individual can achieve their dreams without limitations based on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, age and disability makes America strong and resilient.

Because of Dr. King and many others, the value of equal opportunity has been woven into the fabric of America. That value can be seen in our Nation's Equal Opportunity Laws:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided protections based on race, color, or national origin
  • The Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which provided protections from discrimination because of age
  • "Title Nine" of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects against discrimination because of sex; and
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 which protect the rights of those with disabilities

The Department of Labor has an important role in ensuring equal opportunity in the workplace. Equal opportunity has been woven into all federal contracts and subcontracts and DOL's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs oversees compliance by federal contractors and subcontractors.

For us here today, Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act brings everyone in this room together. Section 188 weaves equal opportunity into the country's workforce system and protects against various forms of discrimination. Naomi and her team at our Civil Rights Center have been charged with overseeing the federally assisted and federal conducted programs. And your jobs as the Equal Opportunity Officers for these programs are essential to turning written law into action that touches the millions of people that flow through the workforce system.

America today is so much different from the time of Dr. King and it does not take long to see it.

You can see the change every time you see a picture of the President of the United States to see how far African Americans have come. You can look at the highest court of the land to see how far women have come. You can see the impact equal opportunity laws have made to reduce isolation for people with disabilities in every ramp and parking spot that allows physical access to our public buildings.

But the work is not done. This year, we released several labor force reports that show very clearly the incredible work we still have to do.

We examined the status of women and minorities in the American economy since the recession that began in 2007. In 2010, the unemployment rate for blacks was 16 percent — significantly higher than those of both whites and Latinos, whose unemployment rate hovers at 11 percent. This group made up 12 percent of the U.S. labor force, with 18 million people, representing 62 percent of the black population, either employed or looking for work.

For Asian Americans, we found that although this group earns the highest median wages of any ethnic group, AAPI workers who lose their jobs stay unemployed for longer periods than Latino or white workers.

We also examined the issue of equal pay. In 2011, women still earn about 20 cents less on the dollar than men. And those 20 cents add up — to $150 less a week, up to $8000 less a year, and as much as $380,000 less over a lifetime of full time work. For women of color the gap is even bigger; 30 cents on the dollar for African-American women and 40 cents for Latinas.

Our report on persons with disabilities showed that last year, close to 20 percent of individuals with a disability were employed compared to 63 percent of those without a disability. In the largest survey ever conducted of transgender Americans, 90 percent of survey respondents reported facing harassment or discrimination on the job, while 26 percent said they had been fired because of their transgender status.

The national survey, conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, found that 41 percent of transgender individuals had attempted suicide because of their treatment by society, dwarfing the national average of 1.6 percent. Can you believe that?

So there is still much work to be done. And we understand the challenges that you face. Budget and staff cuts combined with the explosion of demand for unemployment and job search support have been devastating. All too often the obligation to provide equal opportunity has been pushed aside as nothing more than an administrative detail.

But the importance of your work demands that we re-commit ourselves and our organizations to weave equal opportunity back into our programs. Ensuring that every part of our communities can and are participating in the workforce programs should be ingrained into everything we do and not just an afterthought. That means that in spite of budget cuts, the EO officers here must be given authority and support so they have the influence necessary to make meaningful and real changes.

So I have a call to action for you today:

Be Proactive - The most important job of the EO officer is finding and eliminating discrimination to ensure that each and every program offered is open and accessible to all. The impact and implementation of the program's policies and practices must be analyzed so that no group is left behind. And it is important that this analysis take place before a single discrimination complaint is filed.

Reach Out — The services offered by your organization are important in so many ways, both to the country and to the individual. Part of your job is to make sure that all parts of your community know about these services and how to take advantage of them.

And we can't forget about those with Limited English Proficiency. Individuals with language barriers can be some of the most vulnerable in our community. Not only is making your programs and services accessible to those with limited English skills the law, it is the right thing to do.

Your work is important. And it means so much to the promise of this country and to our continued progress as a people. So, when I do attend Dr. King's memorial service in a few weeks, I'll tell your story. On that day, I'll remind the people there of the incredible work you do to honor the legacy of Dr. King every day.

Thank you again for all of your good work. Have a wonderful forum and enjoy your time in Washington.