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Labor Secretary Walsh to prioritize American Rescue Plan, focus on ‘building back better’

President Biden regularly touts the promise of his COVID relief legislation, but there are significant problems in the job market that may not be easily solved as more than 9 million Americans remain out of work, and the unemployment numbers remain high. Newly appointed Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the administration's plans for the job market.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden is regularly touting the promise of his COVID relief legislation, but there are significant problems in the job market that may not be easily solved.

    More than nine million Americans remain out of work, and the unemployment numbers have a long way to go before reaching pre-pandemic levels.

    To walk us through the administration's efforts to improve these numbers, let's bring in the new secretary of labor, Marty Walsh. He was sworn in just yesterday. And he joins us now in his first television interview in the new position.

    Secretary Walsh, welcome. Congratulations on your confirmation.

    And let me just begin by asking you, what are you — who and what are your most urgent priorities as you take on the job of as labor secretary?

  • Sec. Marty Walsh:

    Thank you very much for having me. It's an honor to be here tonight with you.

    There's a lot of different priorities that we have. I think that really looking at our broad-based policies is something that's really important, making sure that we look at a lot of different industries and areas of workers and to be able to get them back to work.

    I also think the American Rescue Plan is something that is going to be vitally important to our economy, to getting our kids back in school, getting people back into the workplaces, and moving our economy forward, helping our small businesses. There's money in there for our small businesses. They have really been decimated throughout this entire pandemic.

    And just working on behalf of the American people. I'm looking forward to getting to work. This is my first full day. So, I'm excited. I spent the day getting briefed on different policies, and what we're doing, and what we want to do, and what we want to roll out, and really follow President Biden's lead in building back better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as we have suggested, this pandemic has clearly wreak havoc on the economy.

    Most Americans are continuing to work, although in very different circumstances. But we also know, at the 1st of the year, Mr. Secretary, 16 percent of Americans either had lost their job entirely or they were working fewer hours.

    What can you do about that? How can that be fixed?

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, I think we have to work across agency line.

    I think it's important to work with Commerce. It's important to work at Labor. It's important to work with governors and mayors all across America in making sure that workers feel safe, that we can get people back into work. It's also important to make sure that we set the right policies in place to make people feel comfortable in helping businesses moving along.

    My previous role, we were planning on, how do we recover from COVID-19? With the vaccinations happening, and the president's very aggressive plan to get vaccines in people's arms, that's also part of this whole plan.

    So, there's lots that we have to do. And the beauty is that President Biden and Vice President Harris have a plan to move forward. And it's our job now, it's my job as secretary of labor and other people's jobs to make sure we continue to carry out that plan and put confidence back into people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just picking up on that, it's something like an estimated four million Americans have now left the workforce because of this pandemic, because of what it's — what it's meant in their lives.

    What can be done about it? We are being told that it may be weeks, months before opportunities for them come back, if ever.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, I think it really comes back down to putting confidence back into the work force. Also, we have a major problem that we have to deal with women in the work force and making sure that we — women have dropped out of the workforce in higher numbers than I think anyone ever anticipated.

    So, we need to make sure, when we talk about child care, making sure that child care is available. And in the American Rescue Plan, I think one thing, you can't — we can't continue to extend unemployment benefits and not to get our economy back up and going. And I know that the president is working with the Senate. There's other pieces of legislation that are coming down right now that they're working on to get America back to work.

    I think that those specific industries, we have to be a little more thoughtful in. I know the restaurants, thousands of restaurants across the country have gone out of business. We need to come back stronger. We need to get those restaurants, some of those restaurants hopefully back. We need to keep making investments.

    And it's not just coming out of the White House. This is something from the White House all the way down to Main Street that we have to work collectively together on. And I know that, in my office, in the briefings I was in today — I was in many of them today — every single briefing was focused on the American worker, whether — how do we strengthen their ability to earn money? How do we strengthen their ability to get a job?

    Job training is another piece that we have in the Department of Labor and working on job training and getting those dollars out the door. Some of those industries that we have lost during the pandemic, we're not going to get them back. So we need to make sure that we can retrain America's workers, so they can access the jobs that are available now for them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Mr. Secretary, you mentioned women.

    Let me follow on that. As you know, today is so-called Equal Pay Day in the United States. Today's March the 24th. This is the day by which it's calculated women, the average woman, female worker, has to work until today to earn as much money as the average man earned in the previous year.

    It takes that much longer for women to make it up. And we also know that the gender pay gap is even worse. For Black women, Equal Pay Day is August the 3rd. For Native American women, it's September the 8th. For Latinas, it's October the 21st.

    What can you and the Biden administration do to, frankly, increase the fairness in how women are paid?

  • Marty Walsh:

    Well, first and foremost, we need to start talking about this and actually taking action.

    And one of my conversations today was with the Women's Bureau at the Department of Labor. We talked about this very issue. You beat me to the punch I was going to talk about today on what can we do to make real definite, concrete changes.

    I think it's about pulling people to the table. What I was able to do in my previous role is bringing large employers in, bringing small employers in, and talking about the importance of understanding that we need to do better on pay equity across the board for women in all different areas.

    It's something that we need to — every so often, this comes up. We talk about — I'm talking in my old role now. We talked about passing legislation. We talked about doing this, doing that. It's time for action.

    And the Department of Labor, at the — I guess the authority of President Biden, is — this is a top issue that he wants us to address. And we're going to — we're going to take this issue — no, I wouldn't say take it on. We're going to address this issue at the Department of Labor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to ask you about reporting that some programs inside the Department of Labor have been literally hollowed out.

    Specifically, I'm asking about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. Their mandate is to make sure the workplace is safe and healthy for workers. But the reports are that, under the previous administration, under the Trump administration, it's now down to the lowest number of inspectors it's had since the 1970s.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are you doing to address that?

  • Marty Walsh:

    This has been addressed financially. The president has allocated funds for us to hire more OSHA inspectors, but not just the OSHA inspectors.

    All the career people working here at the Department of Labor, I want to just say thank you for the work you have done. Many, many people have worked through many different administrations, have worked extremely hard.

    So, what we want to do is make sure we bring the confidence and the respect back to those workers who are working on behalf of the American people every single day. OSHA is a big part of it. I'm not trying to deflect the question. But we are going to be hiring hundreds of new OSHA inspectors. We're going to get them trained up. We're going to get them out into the job sites and to the areas.

    People need to feel safe. People need to be safe in their work site. I'm a former construction worker, and safety needs to be the number one priority, not just in construction, but also all across the different industries all throughout our country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I asked specifically about OSHA and safety and health because we're in a pandemic, when those issues matter more than ever in the workplace.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Yes, health — the health and safety of our — and well-being of our workers is a top priority for the Biden administration. It's a top priority for the Department of Labor, and it should be a top priority for employers all across America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The new secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, thank you again very much. We appreciate it.

  • Marty Walsh:

    Thank you.

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