WASHINGTON -- Labor Secretary Hilda Solis voiced some early support for President Barack Obama's much-anticipated jobs plan on Wednesday, saying that the government needs to extend the payroll tax cut, give incentives to companies willing to hire the unemployed and invest in infrastructure to help prop up a struggling economy.
"We are in need of extending some good programs that I think work," Solis said at a press roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "This whole economic situation has taken many people by surprise. But I think there's still a lot of confidence and support in the president's work."
As the overseer of the federal agency that produces employment statistics, Solis has been the bearer of mostly disappointing news during an economic recovery that many believe has stalled. Solis is an avid traveler, and she said she's heard the frustration from Americans faced with anemic job growth throughout 2011. The president will reveal his plan in an address on Sept. 7.
"It's not happening fast enough," Solis said of economic growth. "That's why the president has to ramp up quickly on job creation."
Solis talked broadly about what her agency can do to protect workers during the sluggish economy -- namely, crack down on worker misclassification, enforce wage laws and reform those jobs programs that aren't fulfilling their potential.
On the problem of misclassification, Solis said too many workers are being classified as independent contractors when they are, in fact, full-time employees, which costs the workers much-needed benefits and the government much-needed tax dollars.
"We're seeing misclassification used to the detriment of employees," Solis said. "I'm very concerned that there's a lot of revenue that's not being caught. And [local governments] need this revenue."
Asked about recent attempts around the country to roll back child labor and wage laws, Solis said the view that labor protections are somehow stifling job growth is a fallacy. (Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann recently said she wouldn't rule out changing minimum wage laws in hopes of creating jobs.) Instead, Solis implied that workers need the protection of labor laws even more in a down economy, calling the current climate "a time when we should be supporting working families."
The federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour, hasn't kept pace with the rise in the cost of living in recent years. Solis largely dodged questions about whether she believes it needs to be raised, although she did say that recent attacks on the minimum wage from conservatives are misguided.
"The minimum is just the minimum," she said. "Those dollars are much needed right now. When you've got three or four kids and a car payment, that money quickly goes out the door and it helps stimulate the economy."
Solis was asked repeatedly for her thoughts on Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry's so-called Texas Miracle, which his boosters say has been a bright spot among dark economic news nationally. Solis said she wouldn't comment directly on the matter, but she then proceeded to highlight some of the problems with the Texas economy. She referred euphemistically to the state's "different scales of pay" -- some 37 percent of the jobs added last year in Texas paid at or below the minimum wage -- as well as to the high injury and fatality rates among workers there.
At several points, Solis' remarks steered improbably toward her government vehicle, a silver Chevy Equinox that she's nicknamed "the Bullet." It was no doubt an unusual choice for a Cabinet member's official car, but Solis said her visits to assembly lines in Michigan inspired her to ask whether the SUV crossover could be procured for official business.
"I've always been an advocate for small, efficient vehicles," she said. "So what better example could I set than to encourage my staff to acquire a vehicle that for me would send a signal that we're supporting American workers?" Solis said she was so smitten with the car that she once drove herself, "which typically we're not supposed to do."
The secretary hopped into the Bullet once the roundtable had concluded, but not before pitching reporters on its merits. "It's a good family car -- it's not too big," Solis said of the Equinox. "You're high up. You're not sitting low where you can't see everything well.
"For me," she added, "it was perfect."
Correction: This story originally described the Equinox as "American-built." It is in fact assembled in Canada.
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