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Labor Secretary Perez: ‘Level Playing Field’ Needed for American Workers

September 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez believes nobody working a full-time job should live in poverty, but it's hard to make progress when Americans face slow economic recovery and stagnant wages. Ray Suarez sits down with Perez to discuss right-to-work laws, hiring people with disabilities and long-term unemployment.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Jobs numbers in the United States are due later this week, and they’re expected to show hiring continues at a moderate pace. But, even as the economy recovers slowly, there are other worries, including a lack of progress on wages.

That was the subject when Ray Suarez sat down with the secretary of labor recently.

RAY SUAREZ: Labor issues frequently don’t capture the top headlines, but the question of a living wage is moving front and center of late.

Protests by fast food workers have helped raise the profile of the issue. In the largest demonstration yet, workers from 60 cities walked off the job last week. They’re seeking $15 an hour and the right to unionize. Many restaurant owners say those added costs would make it too difficult to maintain their businesses. For his part, President Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, up from the current level of $7.25.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez is a key voice for dealing with these and other issues. He was just recently confirmed by the Senate.

And welcome to the NewsHour.

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SECRETARY OF LABOR THOMAS PEREZ: It’s a pleasure to be here, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: We saw in many places fast food restaurants with workers outside leafletting, trying to tell the public where they stand.

Recently, you wrote: “People who work full-time in America shouldn’t have to live in poverty, simple as that.”

But how do you change a marketplace that manages to get people to come in to work on very low wages?

THOMAS PEREZ: Well, I think you take a page out of what happened 50 years ago.

We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And that wasn’t simply a march for civil rights, as you know. It was a march for economic justice. And one of the demands of the marchers was a fair and decent wage. And that is really what the president is calling for in this context, because nobody should have to live in poverty who is working a full-time job.

And there are a lot of myths about minimum wage workers: They’re all teenagers. That’s just categorically inaccurate. And in order to get people up to the ladder of opportunity, they need to make a decent wage. And for all too many people across America, the rungs between the ladder are growing further and further apart.

RAY SUAREZ: The share of the American work force that is represented by labor unions has dropped pretty significantly in recent decades. Is organized labor still important, or does the secretary of labor have to look more broadly to employers when talking about the fate of American workers?

THOMAS PEREZ: I think the answer to your question is both. Organized labor is still important.

I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., a strong union town, and labor unions continue to play an important role there and across America. At the same time, we need to make sure that we’re not talking about yesterday’s battles, us against them, labor against management. We need to be focused on tomorrow’s challenges. We’re all in this together.

That’s what I learned in Maryland when we were trying to create jobs. And you look at the partnerships in Nevada between the labor unions and the large employers, MGM and others. You look at the partnerships in New York City between SEIU and the health care system. They have come together around an understanding that if we’re going to bring jobs back to America, whether it’s manufacturing, service or otherwise, we have to come together around a shared vision and a shared understanding, and leave yesterday’s battles behind, and come together around a joint need for skill development and partnership.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the law in many places in the country just made it too hard to organize if you’re a group of workers who would like to be represented by a union?

THOMAS PEREZ:  Well, it’s up to each state in terms of whether they want to pass right-to-work laws.

I happen to believe, as the president does, that right-to-work laws are not good public policy. That is a state judgment. And in those states, it has been more difficult to organize. I would like to see a level playing field, so that workers can make a full and fair choice, and some states have that and some states don’t.

But, again, I — what heartens me as much as anything is I think there’s an acute recognition in the labor movement and among responsible employers that we can’t fight yesterday’s battles anymore. If we’re going to bring jobs back, if we’re going to build a robust economy, we have got to recognize that we’re all in this together.

RAY SUAREZ: Your department has recently put in place targets, new targets for people who do business with the federal government for hiring disabled workers and veterans. How does that work and what is that meant to respond to?

THOMAS PEREZ: Well, what it’s meant to respond so is that the promise of the Americans With Disabilities Act, that that law has been a game-changer.

But, in the employment context, there are still stubbornly high unemployment rates among people with disabilities. Now, how many people do you meet, Ray, who come up to you and say, I want to be a taxpayer? That’s what people with disabilities tell me. And what this regulation sets in place is that, for veterans with disabilities, for people with disabilities, employers need to set targets, their goals.

And they need to have a plan to make sure that when you’re looking at a person with a disability, you’re focused on their ability, not their disability. And I applaud employers like Walgreens and Sodexo others who have already exceeded these goals and are models for the nation. And I’m confident that this will open up windows of opportunity for people with disabilities.

RAY SUAREZ: A group of H.R. managers and large employers have gotten together to complain that this puts them in the position of asking their prospective workers about possible disabilities in a way they wouldn’t have before. In effect, they’re saying the federal government is forcing us to invade their privacy.

How do you respond to that?

THOMAS PEREZ: It’s incorrect.

There’s no requirement on the prospective employee to answer any questions. All the questions are voluntary. And, again, I would go back to all of these employers, large and small, as I mentioned, Walgreens, Ernst & Young, others, who issued statements strongly supporting this initiative. This isn’t a partisan initiative.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s so much to talk to you about, but I’m going to have to close with a question about the long-term unemployed…

THOMAS PEREZ: Sure.

RAY SUAREZ: … because, while the unemployment rate has been coming down steadily, not — perhaps not as fast as the administration and the American people would like, but it has come down — people who have been unemployed for a long time are having a terrible, terrible time getting jobs.

What can we do for them?

THOMAS PEREZ: Well, we can do a lot.

And you’re correct that, while the economy is slowly and steadily growing, we have to go at a faster pace. And, in particular, we need to address the needs of the long-term unemployed. And the president has been talking about this issue specifically and a number of things that we can do.

Number one, we have been talking about with employers. And, as recently as a few days ago, I engaged in this precise conversation about what we can do to identify employers with best practices for hiring the long-term unemployed, making sure that there aren’t inadvertent barriers in place that screen out the long-term unemployed.

Secondly and equally, if not more importantly, investing in skills, because the thing I hear the most in my conversations with CEOs across the country is, I am — for every job I have, I have 50 or 60 percent of the applicants don’t have the skills necessary to do the jobs.

And so we’re — the Department of Labor is a department of opportunity. And the way we enhance opportunity is by making sure that people have the skills to succeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Perez is the secretary of labor.

Thanks for joining us.

THOMAS PEREZ: It’s a pleasure.