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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,
White House Summit on Working Families,
Lead-Up Event on Challenges Facing Working Fathers,
June 9, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning everyone. What a great honor to be here, to talk about a few of my favorite topics — middle-class economic security and being a dad. I'm grateful to everyone who has been a part of the Summit on Working Families, which is not just a single event but a process and a nationwide conversation — about the challenges facing working families and the need for 21st century workplaces that will make our communities, our businesses and our economy stronger.

I'm proud of the role the Labor Department is playing to convene these forums around the country — reaching out and listening to and lifting up local voices whose message and stories we're carrying back to Washington. I'm excited about the Summit on June 23, which will be the culmination of these efforts. But I'm even more excited about the road beyond that, when we really get down to the task of meeting these challenges head-on.

Let me explain the challenges this way: we're here today because everything has changed in recent decades — the economy, technology, cultural attitudes, gender roles, the demographics of the workforce, the structure of the American family, you name it. And fatherhood has changed too — this isn't your father's fatherhood.

All these things have undergone a rapid transformation, but the laws and policies governing work and family remain static. They haven't caught up or evolved. We live in a Modern Family society, but we're still living by Leave It To Beaver rules.

We need to do more to give people the tools to be responsible employees and good parents, so they don't have to choose between the families they love and the jobs they need. We need to make sure people are able to put food on the table, but also to be at that table to eat dinner. Because the most important family value is time with your family.

It all starts with rewarding hard work and responsibility with a fair wage that can support a family. If you want to understand why the middle class is taking it on the chin, here's the one statistic that brings it into focus: since 1979, worker productivity has increased more than 90 percent, but average wages for production and non-supervisory workers overall have barely budged. Workers are helping generate wealth and prosperity but not sharing in it. They're receiving a smaller share of the pie that they helped bake.

That's why President Obama and I and this entire administration have fought so hard for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. No one who works full time in America should have to raise their family in poverty. But so many people can't be there for their kids because they have to work two or three jobs. So many of them have to resort to food stamps and other forms of public assistance just to survive. The purchasing power of the minimum wage is 20 percent less than it was in the 1980s. It's time to give America a raise. Our workers need it. Forward-looking businesses embrace it. A majority of the American people support it. So many states and localities are already doing it.

But we can't stop there. The president has said he'll use his pen and his phone to create more opportunity for more people during this year of action. Well, our phone's ringing off the hook at the Labor Department. The president has tasked us with updating the nation's overtime rule — because if you take time away from your family to work an extra shift, you should be paid extra for it. But our overtime rule hasn't kept up with inflation or with changes in the economy. We're working with a diverse set of stakeholders — workers, businesses, professional associations, labor unions and others — to fix the rule and ensure that hard work and responsibility are rewarded.

But of course, the imperative here goes beyond wages. We need to take on a whole host of issues that, frankly, have been absent from the national agenda. We have to start talking about child care, which is shockingly expensive in the United States. We have to lean in on paid leave, flexibility, work-life balance and family-friendly workplaces. I'm sorry to report that we're not exactly in the global vanguard on this front. There are exactly four nations that don't offer any form of paid parental leave — Swaziland, Lesotho, Papua New Guinea…and the United States of America.

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

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 in the OECD nations as a whole pay. And it's not like the countries that are 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.

As it turns out, these policies aren't anti-business or anti-growth. That's yesterday's stale thinking. More and more, employers are recognizing that providing flexibility and leave improves worker loyalty, morale and productivity. And that, in turn, improves the bottom line. That's why we're committed to a strong partnership with the business community as we move forward.

Oftentimes, we identify this set of issues as women's issues. It's kind of a shorthand, and it's understandable. They are women's issues, but they're also men's issues and family issues. I meet so many men who want to be a constant presence in their children's lives. They want to be at back-to-school night. They want to go to the pediatrician appointments. They don't just want to provide; they want to parent too.

These issues are very much on my mind because tomorrow afternoon my oldest child will graduate from high school, and in a few short months she'll be off to college. Maybe she'll continue to visit her old man after that, but we can't be entirely sure.

One of the things I've always made time for is involvement in my kids' sports teams. I kept the statistics for Amalia's varsity lacrosse team this season — she had 15 goals by the way, in case you were wondering. Over the years, I've also been able to coach all three of my kids in baseball and basketball, something that has strengthened our bond and given me indescribable joy. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I lost my own father when I was 12, and I'm the same age now that he was when he died suddenly of a heart attack. So when it comes to family time, I have a strong sense of the fierce urgency of now.

But I'm lucky. I've had jobs that allow me the flexibility to be there when one of the kids sinks a jump shot, or for the parent-teacher meetings. I can move tasks around. If I don't get something done at the office at 4:30 in the afternoon, I can go back to it at 10:00 in the evening. Friday was my son's 12th birthday, so I left around noon.

But if you work in retail or in hospitality or at a call center, or if you need to take a second job at night to make ends meet, you probably don't have that option. 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.

I'm proud to be Secretary of Labor. But I'm even prouder of two more important titles: dad and husband. I've been able to be all three. I want all working people, no matter what their jobs are, to be able to meet their obligations both at work and at home.

I'm so pleased you'll be hearing from Daniel Murphy a little later this morning. His is a story about having the right priorities, about being true to your values even in the face of some criticism. If my own favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, didn't have a pretty good second baseman, I'd suggest they try to trade for Daniel Murphy. But his story is also about something else. It's my hope that as many Americans as possible can have what Daniel Murphy has — membership in a strong labor union that negotiated a paternity leave policy in its collective bargaining agreement.

Let's never forget that having a voice at work — having the right to organize and join a union — is absolutely essential to securing the wages, benefits and flexibility that both women and men need. The labor movement is one of American history's 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.

There was an article in the Times several weeks ago that really took me aback. It described how the United States no longer has the most affluent middle class in the world, having been overtaken by Canada. And not coincidentally, generous leave policies are the law of the land in Canada, and union density is twice as high in Canada as it is in the U.S.

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So when we talk about these issues, we're not just talking about balance and about Tom Perez' ability to make a youth soccer game. This conversation is about empowering the middle class and strengthening the fundamental building blocks of economic self-sufficiency. It's about making sure people can reach the rungs on the ladders of opportunity. It's about fully restoring that basic bargain that has always defined our country — that if you work hard and take responsibility, you will be rewarded with the chance to succeed, the chance to live out your highest and best dreams.

Now let me turn over the floor to someone who spends his days and nights thinking about how to restore that bargain, how to empower working families, and how to create opportunity for all. He's someone who combines extraordinary policy expertise with a gut-level understanding of what the data and the Power Point decks mean in the lives of real people.

It's a privilege to work with him every day…a talented economist and a really great dad…the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman.