PITTSBURG -- When Ruben Rosalez walks into a grocery store, he isn't just thinking about how much the items on his shopping list will cost.
He's also wondering whether a fair wage is being paid to the store clerks who work there and the farmworkers whose toil in the fields filled up the produce bins with fruits and vegetables.
"All the time. There's a lot of costs that people don't associate with about how those things got on the shelves," said Rosalez, of how it's difficult to walk into a store and not think about his job. "Being able to fix a situation, getting money into the hands of workers that really need it, that's really rewarding," he said, noting that he works to make sure people are getting paid fair wages.
Rosalez is the regional administrator for the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor's Western Region, which, among other things enforces federal minimum wage laws, overtime pay and child labor regulations that employers are required to follow. The region is huge, encompassing California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, along with Guam, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
"I view it as an opportunity to put my stamp on leadership here. I want to raise the bar in terms of enforcement, to make sure enforcement is fair but firm," said Rosalez, a 47-year-old third-generation Pittsburg resident who was promoted to the post last June after serving as the division's deputy regional administrator for three years.
Raising the bar is something that Rosalez first did as a sophomore at Pittsburg High School in 1980, when he helped lead a three-day student boycott fueled by Latino students' concerns that they faced discrimination and were not having their educational needs met.
The boycott resulted in Pittsburg Unified adopting 10 recommendations drawn up by school board trustees in response to a list of 17 student demands that, among other things, called for more bilingual teachers and a discipline policy that would be applied equally to all students.
"That introduced me to being in the community and working with people and trying to help others," Rosalez said.
During the time he was involved with the boycott, Rosalez was also class president, a position he held from his freshman year until he graduated in 1983.
"It was tough. I was torn," he said of the dichotomy between leading the boycott and being class president. "But because of the issues being raised at the time, I felt committed to act and became a student leader."
Participating in the boycott caused him to lose his place on the football team as a result of having three unexcused absences from practice, said Rosalez, who returned to the team in his senior year. He was also on the wrestling team.
He still makes time to stay connected to the school. At a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, he gave a talk to students about how good-paying jobs help to provide the basis for strong family life. He is scheduled to speak at a Cesar Chavez multicultural event at Pittsburg's Creative Arts Building on March 30.
Vince Ferrante went to school with Rosalez and played on the football team with him.
"I think he really blossomed in high school, recognizing some unjustness that was being done and taking a leadership role," said Ferrante, who is now a Pittsburg Unified School District trustee.
Rosalez was chosen by Pittsburg High students as "Mr. Ugly Man," a position akin to being named homecoming king in other schools.
His father worked at the steel mill, and his mother was a waitress at the Mecca, a school custodian and a teacher's aide. She was a big influence in his decision to advocate for human rights, he said.
"I grew up in Pittsburg and love the diversity," Rosalez said. "The different cultures and languages has been an asset in my career."
While a senior at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, he worked as an intern at a company undergoing a Labor Department audit on equal opportunity hiring practices. One of the investigators told Rosalez that the department was looking for employees who spoke Spanish.
After graduating, he got a job as an investigator in the department's wage and hour division in the Los Angeles office, where he looked into working conditions at sweatshops. He also investigated working conditions for farm laborers. "You're talking about the most vulnerable workers in our country," he said.
His career eventually brought him to the San Francisco office and a move back to Pittsburg in 1997. Three years later, he ran successfully for an open seat on the school board during a tumultuous time for the district.
"There was a teachers strike. The community was very divided. I wanted to run to mend the division in the community," said Rosalez, who was re-elected in 2004, then ran unopposed in 2008.
But in 2009, he resigned because of the increased workload and travel related to his job.
Today, there are still demands on his time. But during the hours he can call his own, he likes outdoor activities such as golfing and fishing and spending time with his children.
Peter Garcia, president of Diablo Valley College, has known Rosalez for more than two decades.
"Even before he waged his first campaign for school board, folks identified him as really bright," Garcia said. "I remember he was a wrestler (in high school), not a big guy, but really tough and tenacious. I think that's probably helped him for the way he goes after things. He wrestles problems to the ground and gets his hands on things and does not let go."
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-779-7189. Follow her at Twitter.com/EastCounty_Girl.
Family: Divorced. Four children: Lazara, 25, Ruben, 19, Selena, 17, and Maya, 14.
Job: Regional administrator for the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor's Western Region.
Education: Graduated Pittsburg High, 1983; Bachelor's degree in public administration, University of the Pacific, 1987.
Upcoming: Featured speaker at March 30 Cesar Chavez multiculural celebration at Pittsburg's Creative Arts Building.