Nominee for Labor Secretary Advances Through Confirmation Hearing

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. February 5, 2021

Following a Feb. 4 Senate confirmation hearing, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh moved one step closer to confirmation as the Biden administration's secretary of labor. Walsh emphasized his collaborative approach and promised increased diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I); ramped-up employee safety enforcement; and more job training.

DE&I Concerns Addressed

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), called for Walsh's swift confirmation. She noted that unemployment is high, particularly among women, people with disabilities and people of color. Pay inequity has worsened during the pandemic, she added. It's "never been more important to have a DOL [Department of Labor] that fights for workers," she said.

Murray said she was pleased that the first former union leader in decades had been nominated to head the DOL and added that she would reintroduce the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act on Feb. 4.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member of the HELP committee, said he believed that Walsh, as a mayor and former state representative and union leader, was qualified to be secretary of labor and congratulated him on his nomination. Burr cautioned that the country couldn't afford to have a secretary who was "in cahoots with labor or management." Instead, the secretary of labor must be able to confront both, he noted. And Burr cautioned Walsh "not to open the door to make enemies of job creators."

Burr noted that the nation needs a more skilled workforce, including more women and minorities in science, technology, education and math.

In his opening statement, Walsh testified, "I am committed to making sure that everyone—including veterans, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants and people with disabilities—gets full access to economic opportunity and fair treatment in the workplace."

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked how Walsh planned to fight systemic racism, Walsh noted that he created an Office of Equity in Boston and said there needed to be more conversations about the problem. Walsh suggested that a task force be formed with the NAACP, the National Urban League and employers to address systemic racism. He added that there was little disagreement about the need to combat systemic racism and achieve pay equity, and emphasized that he takes a collaborative approach to decision-making.

Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., sought a commitment from Walsh to implement mental health parity laws and ensure that the laws are working.

Walsh replied that he would and that everyone was affected by mental health issues. The country needs to do a lot more to promote mental health wellness, Walsh added. He said it could be "a game changer for people."

Safety Concerns

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., stated that she trusted Walsh to look out for workers, noting that he had as mayor ensured the provision of personal protective equipment to front-line workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., called on Walsh to commit to the issuance of emergency temporary standards during the pandemic.

Walsh committed to do everything he could to protect essential workers and front-line workers if confirmed as secretary of labor.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also urged Walsh to adopt emergency temporary standards if confirmed.

Walsh said he would "do everything I can, if confirmed, to advance worker rights." Walsh also noted that President Joe Biden wants to increase the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors.

Job Training

In response to questioning from Burr on the importance of job training, Walsh said he would focus on job-training programs, saying that they were a pathway into the middle class.

Responding to questions from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., on helping workers find work, Walsh said that with job training there would need to be collaboration among the departments of Commerce and Education, as well as members of the higher education community.

In Boston, he worked with community colleges on job training and internships in high school. "Job training is not a Republican or Democrat issue," Walsh said, adding that people in the disability community and people recovering from substance abuse should not be overlooked.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., emphasized the value of starting vocational training in high school for those who don't go to college.

Concerns with Biden Administration Actions

Although senators across the aisle gave Walsh a mostly warm reception, some highlighted concerns with Biden administration actions thus far impacting labor. These actions include the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline, support for the PRO Act and a call for raising the federal minimum wage.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said the Teamsters strongly opposed the cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline and asked Walsh if he agreed with Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa.

Walsh responded that the Biden administration was planning for the nation to build back better with green jobs.

Cassidy asked if those jobs would be available tomorrow and noted that those who lost their jobs can't pay into their retirement or health care.

Walsh said the jobs that would be created under Biden's plan would more than make up for the jobs lost.

But Cassidy said it would "be quite some time until there were new jobs" and that those who lost their positions had mortgage payments due now.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, urged Walsh not to adopt policies that "send jobs overseas, where environmental and labor practices are less responsible."

And Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., opposed the Biden administration's support for the PRO Act. He noted that it would undermine right-to-work laws in 27 states by permitting unions to require workers at unionized companies to pay dues. Currently, employees in right-to-work states may choose not to pay union dues.

Scott also criticized the proposed increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, saying that it was "bad policy with good intentions." He said an increase in the minimum wage would lead to the loss of nearly 4 million jobs.

But Warren supported a raised minimum wage and said Walsh would "serve the people."

Nonetheless, the Senate passed a nonbinding measure on Feb. 5 delaying an increase in the minimum wage during the pandemic.



Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

Member Benefit: Ask-An-Advisor Service

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.

SHRM's HR Knowledge Advisors offer guidance and resources to assist members with their HR inquiries.



HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.