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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks By
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez,
San Francisco Regional Forum,
White House Summit on Working Families,
San Francisco, CA,
May 27, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good afternoon and thank you so much. Elmy, I told when you left Washington a few weeks ago that it wouldn't be long before we saw each other. I'll say again what I said at Elmy's send-off party: It's nice to be important, but it's important to be nice. Elmy is both, and I know she will distinguish herself in this new position.

Thank you, Kelly, for your great work at the Women's Bureau. Neera, thank you for your remarkable leadership at CAP and for your partnership on this Summit. Mayor Lee, thank you for your hospitality and your stewardship of this dynamic city. Congressman Honda and Congressman Huffman, thank you for fighting for working families in the House every day. And Leader Pelosi, thank you for being such an inspiring leader to all of us.

It's great to be in a city and a state that has been in the vanguard on the issues we'll be discussing today -- showing the way on paid leave, empowering working families and embracing the contributions women make to our economy.

It should be a fascinating day of discussion and action. You'll hear from smart experts and dedicated advocates, as well as working people who can describe what it's like to try to make a living while caring for a disabled child, or what it means when you're not eligible for paid family leave insurance.

At its core, this Summit on Working Families is about the hopes and aspirations of our neighbors trying to secure a foothold in the middle class. It's about honest people who want nothing more than a chance to go as far as their hard work will take them. It's about expanding opportunity by rewarding responsibility and strengthening families.

Minimum Wage

That starts with restoring wage fairness. The minimum wage, since it was first instituted 76 years ago, has been based on a very simple value proposition: no one who works full time in the United States should have to raise their family in poverty.

But today, low-wage workers are working harder and falling further behind. They're not getting ahead; they're barely getting by. Their commitment to hard work is not being rewarded. I've met with these folks, and their stories are seared in my memory. Like the man in Connecticut who told me that he has to choose whether to buy a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas. Like the baggage handler at Newark airport who had to tell his 16-year-old son he couldn't afford to get him anything for his birthday.

So many of them have to resort to public assistance programs just to survive. We could move 3.8 million people off of food stamps and into economic self-sufficiency just by increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Instead, the American taxpayers are subsidizing low-wage business models. That's no way to reward hard work and responsibility.

It's not just workers who would benefit. I talk to employers and CEOs week after week, and they tell me that paying higher wages is smart business. It increases productivity. It reduces turnover and training costs. And besides, what these companies need more than anything are customers. They understand that when workers have more money in their pockets, they spend it. They don't stash it in offshore bank accounts; they pump it right back into the economy. And that helps other businesses grow, which helps create jobs for more people.

But somehow, this Congress didn't get the memo. Raising the minimum wage has been a bipartisan tradition — every president since FDR, except Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, has done it. But a month ago, a minority of U.S. Senators blocked a minimum wage increase supported by a clear majority of Americans. In the last few weeks, we've seen those notorious liberals Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty publicly embrace a higher minimum wage. If it's good enough for them, why isn't it good enough for the Republicans on Capitol Hill?

We will continue to press Congress on this issue. For working families, we will continue to fight for the raise they need, the raise they've earned, the raise they deserve.

Overtime

President Obama has said this will be a year of action, with or without Congress. He will use his pen and his phone to create opportunity for working families. And let me tell you, our phone at the Labor Department is ringing off the hook.

A few months ago, the president tasked me with updating the nation's overtime rules. Overtime's a pretty basic idea: if you work more, you should get paid more. But under the current rules, some salaried workers are making as little as $455 a week and still don't qualify for overtime. They're essentially being forced to work 20 hours a week for free. And if you spend even 1 percent of your time doing managerial functions, and the rest of your work responsibilities involves stocking shelves, you can be shut out of overtime eligibility. That's no way to reward hard work and responsibility, so we're going to fix it.

Global Comparison

But this is about more than wages. It's about honoring both the dignity of work and the importance of families. It's about flexibility. It's about access to child care, which is shockingly expensive in our country.

It's about paid leave and sick days. The Family and Medical Leave Act was an enormous breakthrough, but we have to go farther. It's not enough just to have your job held for you. Without paid leave, working families' economic security is undermined. According to one Center for American Progress study, workers receiving partial or no pay while on leave are more likely to put off paying bills, more likely to borrow money and more likely to go on public assistance.

These ideas we're discussing today aren't radical; they're firmly in the mainstream. Yet every time we lean in on these issues a little, the Chicken Littles come out of their coops to start chirping about how the sky will surely fall if we give people a few days' pay to take care of their family.

But they're wrong. The rest of the world's democracies and industrialized nations have figured out how to do this; what's taking us so long?

The current minimum wage of $7.25 is embarrassingly low by global standards. And even the raise to $10.10 would leave us in the middle of the pack — behind Australia, Belgium, Canada and Japan and many others.

According to 2012 figures, the net cost of child care in the United States is equal to 38 percent of the average wage. That's more than twice what families pay in OECD nations as a whole. And it's not like the nations making these investments have self-destructed economically. Sweden spends more on child care and early education than nearly any other nation, but it has one of the highest levels of GDP per capita in the world. Brazilian unemployment is comparable to ours, but their workers get 120 days of leave at 100 percent pay.

Regrettably, there are four nations in the world that do not provide any form of paid parental leave — Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea... and the United States of America. I think we can do better than that, don't you?

It's a similar story, by the way, in individual states that have innovated with progressive leave policies. As far as I can tell, California did not fall into the ocean after it passed the nation's first paid leave law.

Personal Stories and Family Values

One of the greatest joys I've experienced in life is coaching my kids' teams in baseball and basketball. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

I've been fortunate to have jobs that allow me to do this. I have flexibility. If I don't get something done at 4:30 in the afternoon, I can go back to it at 10:00 in the evening. But if you work in retail or in hospitality or at a call center... you probably don't have that option, and you can't be there for your kids.

And often, it's not just about missing a game. It means you can't help with homework. It means you can't be involved enough to know when your kids are in trouble at school. Or it means if they get sick in the middle of the day, you have no way to pick them up.

Don't our families deserve better? Why are we forcing people to choose between the family they love and the job they need?

And it's not just about being able to put food on the dinner table; it's about being able to actually be at the dinner table too. The most important family value of all is time with your family.

The Role of the Labor Movement

Earlier this spring, Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets made some waves when he missed Opening Day to spend a few days with his wife and newborn child. I hope I live to see the day when such a decision is anything but controversial. And I hope to hasten the day when more Americans have what Daniel Murphy has — membership in a strong labor union that negotiated a paternity leave policy in its collective bargaining agreement.

Having a voice at work — the right to join a union — is absolutely essential to securing the wages, benefits and flexibility that allow people not only to support their families but also be there for their families.

The labor movement is one of our most powerful forces for upward mobility and economic security. There is a direct link between the strength of the labor movement and the vitality of the middle class in America. Several months ago, the Labor Department released statistics demonstrating that median earnings for union members were $200 a month higher than for non-union workers. And that doesn't even factor in additional benefits -- greater access to health insurance, a retirement savings plan, sick and vacation leave and more.

There was an article in the New York Times last month that really took me aback. It explained that the United States no longer has the most affluent middle class in the world, having been overtaken by Canada. And not coincidentally, Canada has generous leave policies and more than double our rate of union density.

The article cited a few reasons for our slippage. And one of them is that American workers are receiving a smaller slice of the pie that they helped bake. Since 1979, productivity has soared by more than 90 percent while wages have remained virtually flat. How do we fix that? Raising the minimum wage is a good start. But we must also protect and strengthen collective bargaining rights, the opportunity to negotiate for your fair share of the value you helped create.

Conclusion: Restoring the Basic Bargain

We're here today to tackle head-on the very issues that keep working families up at night:

  • What if I get sick again and have to miss work... then how will we pay for day care?
  • I'd like to take that extra shift to earn more money, but who will watch the kids?
  • What happens if mom can't live on her own anymore and I have to take time off to look after her?
  • And, how am I going to take time off after childbirth if I don't get a paycheck for three months?

These families are buckling under the strain of trying to balance their commitment to their jobs and their commitments at home. They're waking up early, finishing that last load of laundry, packing lunches, waiting at the bus stop in bad weather, trying to stay on top of everything.

They are absolutely heroic. And it's about time we started treating them like it. We have to create a system that allows people to be a good parent and a good worker. We have to create an economy where American families can be strong.

The world has fundamentally changed. The economy has changed. The workforce has changed. Families have changed. The culture has changed. Now we need public policy to change too. I mean, Modern Family is on our televisions, but Leave it to Beaver still informs our laws.

What's at stake here is really our commitment to the basic bargain of America -- if you work hard and take responsibility for yourself and your family, then you can succeed. You can punch your ticket to the middle class. You can have a roof over your head and a nest egg for retirement. You can send your kids to college and do a little better than your parents did.

But that bargain's under siege. Too many people are finding their highest and best dreams beyond their grasp. Too many are finding the rungs on the ladder of opportunity further apart, and not as sturdy as they had been promised.

So today, let's commit ourselves to restoring that basic bargain. Let's commit ourselves to an economy that truly rewards hard work and responsibility.

It might not happen quickly. And it definitely won't happen without some tenacity on our part. But I am unrelentingly optimistic. With Nancy Pelosi leading the charge in the House of Representatives... with great public servants like Ed Lee running our cities... with organizations like CAP moving the ball downfield... with the people in this room putting their shoulder to the wheel... we will get it done. Thank you so much.

# # #

Now, it's my unique pleasure to introduce someone who, frankly, needs no formal introduction before this group.

She is one of the most accomplished legislators of this generation — both principled and effective; both pragmatic and idealistic. From the Recovery Act to the Lilly Ledbetter Act to the Affordable Care Act, so many people's lives have changed because of her remarkable, history-making tenure as Speaker of the House.

She is a pioneer and a glass ceiling breaker. She has lived the values that are the focus of this forum. And even though she's represented this city in Congress for more than a quarter century... those of us from the state of Maryland still claim her as our own. And who wouldn't?

Ladies and gentlemen... Democratic Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives... Nancy Pelosi.