President-Elect Barack Obama recently announced his intention to nominate Representative Hilda L. Solis (D-CA) to be the next Secretary of Labor of the United States Department of Labor (USDOL). If officially nominated and confirmed once Obama takes office, her appointment may result in significant regulatory changes and stronger pro-employee enforcement of wage and hour laws and workplace safety issues.

Solis has represented California in the U.S. Congress since 2001, where she has served on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Environment and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, the House Committee on Natural Resources, the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the Subcommittee on Health, and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Prior to running for U.S. Congress, Solis was a member of the California State Assembly from 1992 – 1994 and a California State Senator from 1994 – 2000.

Solis is a strong advocate for employees and unions, which comes as no surprise since she is the daughter of a former union shop steward. In the U.S. Congress, Solis has received a near 100 percent voting rating by the AFL-CIO as opposed to a 21 percent voting rating by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Solis has continuously supported employee and union initiatives, including the federal Healthy Families Act (mandatory paid sick leave), the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for employees to organize a union), the Protecting Workers Act (which would increase penalties against employers for safety violations), and increasing the federal minimum wage.

Although the National Labor Relations Board, and not the USDOL, is responsible for enforcing the federal laws related to unionizing employees, Solis’ appointment to Secretary of Labor could result in significant regulatory changes and increased enforcement efforts in other areas of employment law. For example, the USDOL enforces workplace safety laws through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Additionally, the USDOL enforces the wage and hour laws, which include regulations related to minimum wage, overtime, and exemptions to overtime requirements. As a result, running a business could become more expensive if Solis is successful in promulgating employee-friendly changes to the regulations and/or increasing enforcement efforts against employers.

Prior to the commencement of Obama’s presidency, it is pure speculation as to what changes may occur at the USDOL. The presidential transition will take place during difficult economic times for employers and employees alike. As a result, the new president and his Secretary of Labor nominee will have to carefully consider the right time to make substantial changes that may make managing a business more difficult and/or expensive for employers. Nonetheless, we can expect that during the next four years, the USDOL will explore many ways to strengthen its support of employees’ rights.