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How to Prevent an Empty Economic Recovery

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During the North American Occupational Safety and Health Week, May 2-8, 2010, Janet Murguía, President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), shares part of her vision for a new economy.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, policies to rebuild a strong American workforce must focus on the quality and quantity of jobs.

I am as eager as any other American for the economy to recover. But prolonged unemployment and congressional inaction on jobs has me increasingly concerned that our economic recovery will be empty. An empty recovery is one that leaves behind the communities hit hardest by the recession, while absorbing the rest of the unemployed back into the labor market--only at lower wages, in more dangerous conditions, and with fewer prospects for upward mobility. Allow me to explain:

Job hunting is now a thankless national pastime for 15 million unemployed Americans, about 40% of whom are Latino or African American. The Economic Policy Institute reports that there are more than five unemployed workers for every job opening. Those aren't good odds for workers--and employers know it. Businesses will be tempted to cut corners on everything from overtime pay to worker safety measures, confident that their employees are too afraid of losing their jobs to complain about labor law violations. Unfortunately, as a result of decades of weakened federal enforcement capacity, declining union presence, and a broken immigration system, many will get away with it.

Latino workers are all too familiar with the consequences of an unregulated labor market. Hispanic workers face a higher rate of death the job than any other demographic group; 21.1% higher than White workers and 17.9% higher than Black workers. In April, we presented recommendations from the groundbreaking NCLR report, Fractures in the Foundation: The Latino Worker's Experience in an Era of Declining Job Quality at a National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety, hosted by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). We are encouraged by the renewed efforts of the Department of Labor to combat worker exploitation. Still, more needs to be done through legislation and stronger rules to protect vulnerable workers in high-violation industries like construction, poultry processing, and agriculture.

A true economic recovery requires policies that reach all communities with employment opportunities and restore basic standards of quality to American jobs. Policymakers must rise to meet the challenges we face. Family economic security and workers' very lives hang in the balance.

Please visit www.nclr.org/fractures for NCLR's recommendations to improve job quality. More information on the Latino experience in the recession can be found at www.nclr.org/recovery.