A Conversation With Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh On The Economy, Employers, And Good Jobs
As we continue to build back from the pandemic, the Biden-Harris Administration is focused on making sure that the economy grows back in a way that works for American families. Strong job growth continues at the same time that we’ve seen an unprecedented boom in entrepreneurship. Against this backdrop, ensuring that the jobs created allow Americans to pay their bills, retire well, and support their families is central.
Thriving Main Streets across America are a critical part of a strong economy. Small businesses are the nation’s largest job-creators. In a more inclusive economy, small employers are not simply creating jobs, but these businesses are the source of high-quality jobs that create wealth and upward mobility for the owner, workers, and their communities.
As Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Marty Walsh leads efforts to engage with businesses and workers. A former Massachusetts State Representative and Mayor of Boston, Secretary Walsh has devoted his career to championing working Americans and in his perch at DOL, he has been focused on engaging employers to help create a more inclusive economy.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Walsh about his work at DOL. I appreciate him taking the time and below is a summary of our discussion.
Rhett Buttle: You have just had your one-year anniversary as Secretary of Labor. What major steps has the department taken in helping businesses, including small businesses, support workers in your first year?
Secretary Walsh: One year into my role as Secretary of Labor, I am proud of what this administration and the Department of Labor has done to support America’s workers. So far, we’ve added 8.3 million jobs to the economy, unemployment is at 3.6 percent, and more Americans are coming back to work. What’s more, small businesses are creating more jobs than ever before. Businesses with fewer than 50 workers created 1.9 million jobs in the first three quarters of 2021 alone, the highest rate of small business job creation ever recorded in a single year.
As I travel across the country, I always make time to have conversations with business owners – large and small – about how the pandemic has impacted their workforce. I constantly hear how through the American Rescue Plan, the administration has provided businesses with the resources and tools to rebuild and thrive. More support means the ability to raise wages for workers and provide stronger, more comprehensive benefits – which, in turn, helps build a pathway for American families to get into the middle class.
At the Department of Labor, we’ve taken steps to expand Registered Apprenticeship across the country while promoting public-private partnerships as a model for creating a skilled workforce for businesses of all sizes. We continue to provide guidance to businesses on wage and hour protections to ensure compliance as well as the financial security of workers.
From unemployment insurance to occupational safety and health, wage and hour protections to anti-discrimination enforcement, health care and retirement security to workforce development — the Department of Labor works to empower workers to support businesses, and improve the wellbeing of every single American family.
Rhett Buttle: Can you describe the relationship between job quality and economic mobility and the role of the Department of Labor in advancing both? How is the Department of Labor working to support specific worker populations, such as older workers, women, and workers of color?
Secretary Walsh: The President has made good, middle-class jobs – with equity and access for all – the heart of his economic agenda. Recently, the Department of Labor announced the “Good Jobs Initiative” to make sure we deliver on that goal in everything we do. This Initiative is focused on worker empowerment, employer engagement, and federal agency support with equity at the center.
This means speaking directly to workers – particularly historically underserved communities – by making sure they have the information they need to exercise their rights, find good jobs, and get in-demand skills.
This means engaging employers – large and small – to amplify best practices, hear their challenges and lessons learned, and help them make impactful investments in job quality, so every industry can attract and retain the talent it needs.
This means working across federal agencies to build job quality into all our contracting and grant making, which includes not just minimum wages – but prevailing wages, paid leave, apprenticeship opportunities, and more.
Rhett Buttle: Covid-19 accelerated major changes and how we work as a society. How is DOL thinking about regulations for hybrid workforces and supporting employer upskilling and reskilling efforts?
Secretary Walsh: The pandemic has altered the state of our workforce — from how we work, how we interact, and the flexibility many workers are seeking. The pandemic has also presented significant disruption of education and training across the country, revealing that our workforce development system may need to adapt.
At the Department of Labor, we are working to increase and promote training for new job opportunities. Scaling strategic workforce development will help expand access to new job opportunities for our veterans, for workers with disabilities, for women and people of color, for older workers, for rural communities, and for justice-involved or previously incarcerated individuals. It will also ensure jobs in emerging sectors, such as renewable energy, clean transportation, and adaptation and resilience, are good jobs and that workers have the skills they need for these jobs of the future.
Rhett Buttle: The pandemic also puts strains on the mental health of millions of Americans. How is DOL supporting worker health and wellbeing in small and larger employers?
Secretary Walsh: In his State of the Union address, President Biden laid out a whole-of-government plan to address the national mental health crisis. Core pillars of this plan include connecting more people to needed care and supporting Americans by creating healthy environments.
America’s workplaces have a critical role to play here, and the Department of Labor is committed to helping employers understand the steps they can take to increase access to care and promote mental health-friendly work environments.
Earlier this year, along with the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Treasury, we released a report to Congress that highlights where insurance companies and health plans are falling short when it comes to parity.
Since the start of the Biden-Harris administration, we have been focused on strengthening our enforcement in this area to identify violations and to work with businesses to increase compliance. We will continue to work hard for individuals with mental health conditions and substance use disorders, so that they get the care they need and are entitled to under the law.
Rhett Buttle: Millions of working Americans lack access to retirement savings accounts at work. How is the DOL working to expand access to retirement savings accounts and promote the financial security of workers?
Secretary Walsh: This administration believes that every single American worker should be able to retire with security. It’s fundamental to the dignity of work – that at a certain age, you can step away, live comfortably, and focus on things and people that you love.
But unfortunately, our nation’s retirement system does not provide security for all workers. In the past, more workers had pensions with defined benefits – I’m one of those workers; my union provided a pension plan.
Today, these types of plans are less common and many workers don’t have that level of security. Polls show that retirement is one of Americans’ top economic concerns. There’s no good reason they should have to live with this uncertainty and anxiety.
That’s why the Department of Labor recently launched a campaign on retirement security, with the goal of underscoring the equity issues at play for Black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous workers; for women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and low-income workers. The campaign will seek to directly engage small business owners to ensure these critical benefits are expanded to as many workers as possible.
The simple fact is: We need a retirement system where no one has to worry about outliving their money. We need a system where plans are easy to access from the beginning of your career; and easy to stick with, even as you change jobs and employers. And we also need a system that doesn’t take a PhD to figure out. To boil it down: We need to make retirement simple, easy, and secure.
The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration is continuously working to achieve a more just retirement system by enforcing the law and advising workers on their retirement rights and their options.
Rhett Buttle: One of the biggest challenges for workers is access to affordable child care. In which ways do you think the Biden-Harris Administration is working to solve the problem and what innovative ideas do you think could be implemented?
Secretary Walsh: Caregiving is the work that stands up the rest of our economy. We can’t have a healthy economy without a strong foundation for our working families. The pandemic proved our economy depends on child care, and has drawn attention to this critical work – which is often underpaid or unpaid. Care work is also disproportionately done by women and people of color – with one in six of these workers living in poverty despite working full-time.
Research and common sense tell us that a key barrier to female labor force participation is the lack of access to childcare, and that businesses benefit from a strong care infrastructure. We also see higher labor force participation, lower turnover and absenteeism, increased productivity, and higher employee engagement. And just as important, we need to raise the wages and protect the rights of the workers who provide that skilled, compassionate care.
The American Rescue Plan provided a strong down payment by offering child tax credits to millions of families, as well as sending $39 billion to states for child care needs – but there is still more to do. A failure to invest in care is a failure to invest in building a strong economy.
Rhett Buttle: You have been a strong supporter of the powerful impact that the expanded, advanced child tax credit played in supporting millions of children. Why should Americans support the continued expanded child tax credit?
Secretary Walsh: Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, millions of families received the expanded child tax credit, which not only helped working families put food on the table, but also drastically cut child poverty. Research shows that children whose families get more in refundable credits do better in school and are less likely to experience major health issues. In fact, research from Columbia University shows that each $1 invested in the Child Tax Credit returns more than $8 to society.
As proposed by the president, continued expanded child tax credit will lift millions of children out of poverty and will help ensure a more equitable economy.