Aside from a few children with unusual interests, it’s likely that anyone reading this remembers “the Millennium.” The “Y2K” concerns proved to be “Y2K-OK.” For many, it was a time of both excitement and reflection. It certainly was for the Labor Department.
From January 2001 to January 2009—President George W. Bush’s entire term—the department was headed by Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American woman to serve in a President’s cabinet. Having immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was eight years old, she epitomized America’s fundamental promise.
Secretary Chao was in office “the day everything changed”—September 11, 2001. As the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field smoldered and the Twin Towers fell, America’s bravest workers—police, firefighters, health care professional and tradespeople (as well as many volunteers)—rose to the occasion. And for the next 10 months, more than 1000 employees of the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) worked around-the-clock to help protect employees from hazards during an unprecedented clean-up operation, providing safety training for workers, and collecting samples to assess potential exposure to health hazards.
In response to another triple tragedy—this time three separate mining disasters in one year—the department implemented the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. The most significant mine safety legislation in 30 years, it made a number of modifications to the overarching Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, including requiring mine operators to provide more updated accident contingency plans and to train miners on how to survive in a range of emergency situations.
On Jan. 20, 2009, President Barack Obama assumed the presidency, and nine days later he signed his first bill into law—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision that required people who feel they are victims of pay discrimination to file a claim within 180 days from the first date they were paid less. Instead, it reinstated a previous, long-standing interpretation of the law that treats each paycheck as a separate discriminatory act, thus starting a new clock. This was a significant victory for working women across the nation.
To be his Secretary of Labor, President Obama chose another exemplar of the American dream, Hilda Solis. The daughter of Mexican and Nicaraguan immigrants who grew up to be a dedicated public servant, Solis invested heavily in creating opportunities for others by focusing on worker safety and security, veterans employment and on-the-job training, especially in the nation’s emerging “green” sector as the department responded to the economic recession that began in 2008.
This decade proved, once again, how nimble the U.S. Department of Labor continues to be in responding to the evolving needs of America—and its workforce—in the 21st century.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.