Unions hope Labor pick will spur action on worker rules

The nomination comes as the Obama administration weighs more than a dozen pending Labor Department regulations. Among them is a plan to institute minimum wage and overtime standards for the in-home healthcare industry.

Companies that provide direct-care services warn that the measure would drive up costs to consumers and damage an otherwise healthy sector of the economy.  The rule is designated as economically significant in that it would be accompanied by a national economic impact exceeding $100 million.

Enactment of the regulations, meanwhile, would represent a major victory for unions that have fought for decades to win higher pay for direct-care aides.

Proponents of the rule see reason for optimism in Perez’s record in Maryland, where he reportedly championed a “bill of rights” for domestic workers while on the Montgomery County Council.

“Given Perez’s serious credentials, we urge Congress to pursue a swift confirmation process so the agency can move forward with … the proposed rule extending minimum wage, overtime and other FLSA rights to the 2.5 million caregivers working without labor protections in the United States,” said Sarita Gupta, executive director of the advocacy group American Rights at Work.

Consumer advocates also hope the nomination would help dislodge a rule placing new limits on workers’ exposure to harmful silica. An estimated 1.7 million shipyard and construction workers come into contact with silica every year. The substance has been linked to health problems, including lung disease.

The rule has languished for two years at the White House. Unions and pro-regulations groups have blasted the administration for “slow-walking” the rule. Industry groups oppose the new standards on the grounds that they are unnecessary and would cost almost $5.5 billion to implement and upwards of $30 million in lost output over 10 years.

The prospect of renewed scrutiny of the rule during Perez’s upcoming confirmation proceedings applies new pressure for the administration to act, said Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government, formerly known as OMB Watch.

“We’re hoping it bodes well for silica because the White House will not want Senate Democrats asking any hostile questions,” Rabinowitz said. “A pending nominee could loosen the stranglehold on the rule.” 

Labor unions, meanwhile, expressed enthusiastic support for the nomination, citing Perez's work on enforcing labor laws along with broader experience on enforcing voting rights, housing and immigration laws.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said Perez has "had a strong record of enforcing labor laws, especially wage and hour and other violations that stood in the way of
workers earning a fair wage."

"Enforcing these labor laws help to close the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else," she said.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) called Perez's pick an "inspired choice" whose career has been "dedicated to protecting Americans who face discrimination in the workplace and the voting booth, as well as standing up for policies that retain and create jobs."

They cited changing "harmful voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas" and stopping other attempts to "block the poor, students, elderly and minorities from exercising their constitutional right to cast a ballot in the 2012 elections."

"He has worked to eliminate discrimination in housing, provide access to education and health care, end hate crimes, crack down on employers who cheat workers out of wages and expand our democracy by protecting the fundamental right of every American to vote," said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

"At a time when our politics tilts so heavily toward corporations and the very wealthy, our country needs leaders like Tom Perez to champion the cause of ordinary working people," Trumka said.

This story was updated at 4: 18 p.m. Vicki Needham contributed.