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A Day in the Life: Austraberta from Houston

Secretary Tom Perez travels to Houston to meet with 71-year-old Austraberta Rodriguez, who has been a janitor for more than 30 years. This is a part of the “day in the life” visits Secretary Perez is making across the country -- a chance to talk directly with the people the Labor Department works for every day.

Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the U.S. Department of Labor's blog. See the original post here.

Leading up to Labor Day 2014, Secretary Tom Perez is traveling across the country to talk with Americans about how we can help more people succeed in the workplace and at home. Follow him along the way with live updates at

Meet Austraberta.


71-year-old Austraberta Rodriguez has been a janitor for more than 30 years. For most of those years, she could only dream about vacation days and paid time off. She was making $5.15 per hour and she had small children and grandchildren. All of her money was going to the bare essentials. Looking back, she doesn’t know how she survived. In 2006, all of that changed.

Austraberta led her co-workers to strike to form a union and raise their families out of extreme poverty. When they first discussed organizing to form a union, there was resounding reluctance. People were scared. “We work in quiet, empty offices. We were used to being hidden away,” she said. “It was a challenge to decide to go public and to tell everybody we were fighting for something better for our families.”

They began rallying in 2006, and eventually won wage increases, vacation time, paid holiday time, and affordable health care. But eight years later, Austraberta is still fighting for an equal voice at the table.

Today, Secretary Tom Perez is traveling to Houston to meet with her. This is the second of five “day in the life” visits Secretary Perez will be making over the next week during his travel across the country – a chance to talk directly with the people the Labor Department works for every day.

We want to make sure you see what he sees, too. Follow along for updates from his trip.

Secretary Perez has breakfast with Austraberta.

Austraberta invited Secretary Perez to come to her home to have breakfast and meet with other local workers. He stopped to pick up some pastries on the way! Referencing a federal minimum wage increase to $10.10, Austraberta explained that such an increase would help her create a better life for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren: “It means more bread for my family. Two more dollars [per hour] would be incredible.”

The minimum wage in Texas is pegged to the federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour. More than 2.5 million Texans make $10 an hour or less. Margo, a maintenance employee at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center, told Secretary Perez at the breakfast: “We don’t get sick time. I missed a full week of work and didn’t get paid. We live paycheck to paycheck.” Carlton, a fast food restaurant worker, said he wants to provide a brighter future for his 1-year-old son.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would help 28 million Americans like Margo, Carlton, and Austraberta. And most of the people who would benefit are just like them: working adults, many with families to support. In fact, 88% of those who would benefit are age 20 or older. More than half are 30 or older. What’s more, a boost in the minimum wage to $10.10 in Texas would add $3.1 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Next stop: The YouthBuild program facility.

Secretary Perez’s next stop after breakfast was to the YouthBuild program facility in Houston, where he met with students and staff. YouthBuild is a Labor Department-funded program that combines traditional classroom learning with occupational skills training for students ages 16-24. They get a diploma or GED, and at the same time, learn job skills by building affordable housing in their communities that will make them attractive to employers and help them succeed in a career.

Some of the students there shared their stories and goals with Secretary Perez. “My dream is to buy and sell houses and the skills I’m learning here are setting me up to be a business owner one day,” said Azarael. “Life before YouthBuild was tough,” Trevion admitted. “Now, we built a family at YouthBuild. I’m excited to come here every day.” Kayla told him, “You get more than just job skills. You get business and people skills.”

“YouthBuild isn’t just the Labor Department at its best; it’s America at its best – investing in potential, providing second chances. We don’t kick people to the curb in this country when they’ve fallen on tough times. We give them a hand up and allow them to go as far as their hard work and personal responsibility will take them.” – Secretary Perez

YouthBuild is founded on the idea that our ZIP codes don’t determine our destiny – an underlying principle of the President’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. YouthBuild creates a “stepping stone” progression from education to work-based training and good-paying jobs for young adults. The community-based nature of the YouthBuild grants makes sure services are provided where they are needed most.

Secretary Perez talks about strengthening local partnerships.

Houston – “the energy capital of the world” – has a booming economy and is faced with the challenge of needing skilled workers to fill good jobs. Partnerships are key to workforce development and helping train workers for the jobs of today (and tomorrow). That was Secretary Perez’s message to the Greater Houston Partnership in the early afternoon.

The Greater Houston Partnership’s Upskill Houston initiative is a great example of one such local partnership: it’s a comprehensive, industry-led approach to bridge the gap and fill jobs in middle-skill occupations. Apprenticeship is one effective way employers can create pipelines of skilled employees, Secretary Perez noted, and despite some lingering (and outdated) stereotypes, it’s a legitimate pathway to the middle class.

He also pointed out that we have to stop thinking of the economy as a zero-sum game, where businesses can only thrive at the expense of workers. Ours is an economy driven by consumer demand. When we reward hard work with fair pay, people pump that money right back into the economy, spending it on goods and services in their communities. That’s why a higher minimum wage is good for workers and for businesses.

The Secretary visits San Jacinto Community College.

At the end of the day, Secretary Perez stopped by the Central Campus of San Jacinto Community College. Labor Department funding and the college’s collaboration with the local workforce system have led to positive results for students and local employers.

Local oil refineries need a pipeline of skilled energy workers. The college’s Process Technology Pilot Plant lab is designed to simulate refinery operations and has helped train hundreds of students:

Jacob Cepeda (below) has one semester left in the process technology program. Prior to joining the program, Jacob had already completed college but ended up with a substantial amount in student loans and needed a career that could help him pay off that debt. He shared how his older brother and uncle have already completed the program and been hired as process operators, so he’s confident he will also get a job. He also noted that employers help shape the curriculum to make sure students are prepared for entering the workforce.

The college’s Nursing Program Education Center prepared people for good jobs in growing health care fields, and was initially funded through a $4.7 million Community-Based Job Training Grant awarded in 2010. Secretary Perez learns about infant care:

San Jacinto College’s programs are a few examples of what we call “job-driven” training. The recently signed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – the most significant reform of federal job training programs in more than 15 years – elevates job-driven training strategies to better serve job seekers. And a new White House report provides a job-driven checklist, based on evidence of what works in job training, to guide administrative reforms. The Labor Department will be at the forefront of those reforms, working with our federal partners and communities – like Houston – nationwide.

Tomorrow, Secretary Perez will be in Memphis to meet with more workers, employers, and community leaders. Get the latest on his trip here.

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