DOL Secretary Trumpets Labor Reform Successes

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 23, 2016
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In a luncheon speech June 22 at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Thomas Perez talked about workplace policy reforms implemented during his three-year tenure with the Obama administration.

Perez is said to be on the list of people that Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is considering as her running mate. That list also includes Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro of Texas, CNN reported June 21.

With his typical rapid-fire delivery, salted with humor and stories of “house calls” he has made to businesses and individuals around the country, Perez sounded optimistic about the nation’s future. Changes made during his tenure that he touched on included:

*Updating the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime rule, which will become effective Dec. 1, 2016. It raises the salary threshold for exempt status to make an estimated 4.2 million workers eligible for overtime pay.

*A final rule to improve protections for the nearly 2.3 million U.S. workers who are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, such as those working in construction, brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing.

*An improved economy. The U.S. has experienced 73 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, resulting in 14.5 million jobs. Additionally, the unemployment rate is now 5 percent, vs. nearly 10 percent when President Barack Obama took office, he noted.

*Initial claims for unemployment benefits have remained under 300,000—less than half of 2009 levels—for 67 consecutive weeks, which he called “the longest streak since 1973.”

*The automotive industry has seen significant growth. It has added nearly 670,000 jobs since mid-2009, and automotive sales “were at a record high last year,” he said, adding that U.S. auto exports are 85 percent above 2009 levels.

Perez praised initiatives such as a program at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, located northwest of Philadelphia. The program was established with a $500,000 grant from the DOL in 2016 to help inmates prepare for a job upon their release.

“The best way to reduce recidivism in this country,” he said, “is to make sure people coming out of correctional facilities have the skills to compete when they get out.”

Perez shied away from commenting on the GOP and Democratic presidential campaigns and sidestepped persistent campaign-related questions from NPC president Thomas Burr. However, in his remarks, Perez made veiled references to what he called the naysaying “Eeyore Caucus,” those he characterized as wanting to deny the successes of the current administration.

He cited the Affordable Care Act as an example. Five years into its implementation, it has “turned out not to be the job-killer” that was predicted.

He spoke passionately about his belief in the need to raise the national minimum wage.

“We need a federal ‘floor’ for minimum wage ... [so] that nobody who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty,” he said. “A $7.25 minimum wage is not a livable wage; it’s a poverty wage,” he said. He noted that 20 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a state or locality that has passed or is likely to soon pass a $15 minimum wage law.

Perez pointed to industrialist Henry Ford, who doubled the wages of his assembly-line workers and shortened the workday, from $2.34 for nine hours of work to $5 for eight hours of work, in part because of a high turnover rate, which delayed production.

One of the accomplishments Perez said he’s most proud of is the final rule that extends minimum wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health care workers, “the overwhelming majority of whom are women of color on food stamps—doing God’s work but not getting paid a fair wage,” he said to loud applause.

He spoke about the importance of assuring workers a voice in the workplace through collective bargaining, calling it “the single most important force that has brought prosperity” to the nation and created a middle class.

In March 2016, the DOL released a new rule that allows workers to know whether so-called anti-union messages are coming from their employer or a third-party consultant paid by the employer so as to provide transparency to workers considering union representation.

“When you screw with unions,” he said, “you screw with the middle class and the livelihoods of people working across the nation.” ​

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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