The Hill interview: Biden Labor chief touts back-to-work push

President Biden’s Labor secretary on Friday brushed off concerns about the so-called Great Resignation while touting broad efforts to promote job growth in the second year of the Biden administration.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh maintained in a wide-ranging interview with The Hill that Americans “want to go to work,” even as the U.S. experiences a high quit rate and American workers gain new leverage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the key of 2022 is going to be, honestly, focusing on getting people back to work,” Walsh said.

Workers voluntarily leaving their jobs during the pandemic, deemed the Great Resignation, is a phenomenon Walsh argued isn’t too concerning because, he said, Americans ultimately want to work.

“When I say this, I don’t mean to downplay it. I’m not as concerned as being reported because … if we look at last year, 2021, more people joined the workforce last year than any other time in the last 25 years. And Americans want to go to work,” he said.

The Cabinet member also emphasized the need to move past the pandemic, which has upended work life for millions of Americans across the country.

“In the sense of the pandemic, getting more people vaccinated and hopefully seeing the number of cases go down in our country, [that’s] No. 1,” he said.

U.S. employers have struggled for months to hire and retain workers. The unemployment rate dropped sharply to 3.9 percent last month as the U.S. added 199,000 jobs in December, well below economists’ expectations.

Republicans have criticized the jobs report, saying the Biden administration hasn’t added any jobs from the 2019 mark, just replaced jobs lost during the pandemic. Walsh pushed back on that criticism. 

“I’m not going to listen to that rhetoric because if you look back at recessions, it’s the same analogy in some cases. The reality of the situation — and if you’re a Republican and you don’t agree with it, well then, that’s OK — but the facts are, 6.4 million jobs were created last year,” Walsh said.

Walsh, the former Democratic mayor of Boston, pointed to that jobs figure during a speech Friday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting, calling 2021 the greatest year of job growth in America’s history. In the interview with The Hill, Walsh argued that Republicans would also promote those numbers if they held the White House. 

“The unemployment rate dropped nearly 3 percent, the largest drop in one year since the 1940s. You can’t run away from that reality, and I suppose if one of them were in the president’s office, they’d be touting the same thing. The reality of the situation is people are going back to work in America,” he said.

Walsh said he is focused on implementing the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, a dominant piece of Biden’s first-year accomplishments that he signed in November.

When asked if there are enough workers for all the projects the law promises to fund, Walsh was optimistic.

“The bipartisan infrastructure law — I’m not necessarily concerned about having workers in that area because I think those are going to be good, strong-paying jobs,” he said.

The secretary said he has spoken with the building trades about the need to keep hiring while also increasing apprenticeships. He predicted workers will be needed in other construction areas, including notably for housing.

“I think we’re going to need additional housing in our country in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to have lots more development going on in our country,” emphasizing the need for “workers at all different levels of construction.”

On Friday, Walsh announced the Department of Labor Good Jobs Initiative, which aims to provide information to workers, employers and government agencies as they seek to improve job quality and create access to jobs free from discrimination.

He said the initiative is about “making sure that information is assessable to workers about their rights on job sites.”

“It’s worker empowerment, really. Their rights to collective bargaining, their rights to form a union, their rights on the conditions they have on the jobs that are going to be in front of them,” he said.

A priority of the initiative is to support implementation of the infrastructure law. The Labor Department will also team up with the White House to provide guidance on creating jobs through infrastructure investments.

“It’s nothing that we haven’t done at the Department of Labor. It’s improving it and ensuring that we implement the bipartisan infrastructure law that’s right in front of us right now to make sure that the jobs that are created are good, high-quality, high-paying jobs,” he said.

While labor unions have commended the infrastructure law, they have not seen their top legislative priority, the PRO Act, passed by Congress. Walsh said Biden is committed to it, but even without the bill he argued the future of labor is bright.

The PRO Act would stiffen penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights and strengthen protections for employees against retaliation.

“Even without the PRO Act, we’re seeing for the first time in 50 years, a very positive sign that 70 percent of Americans are looking favorable on unions,” Walsh said.

“Unions took a hit too during the pandemic. They lost membership, people retired, people left,” he added. “As we’re moving forward here, I think organized labor is going to continue to go out and organize.”

The Labor secretary also touted provisions of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. The bill stalled in the Senate last month, but Democrats are hoping to resurrect portions that could get support from all Democrats, including notably Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The agenda includes funding for child care and elder care, two issues Walsh says he hears about the most from people.

“Everyone in this country should be able to work one job and be able to raise a family on, not have to work two, three and four jobs to raise a family,” he said.

“Whether it’s New York City; Albuquerque, N.M.; Dayton, Ohio; Gary, Ind. — wherever I go, I hear those things,” he added.