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OSEC Congressional Testimony

Statement of Robert B. Reich Secretary of Labor before the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, United States House of Representatives [1/11/95]

Chairman Goodling, Representative Clay, and other Members of the Committee:

In the two years since I arrived in Washington, I've come to share much of the current frustration with government that seems out of touch with the ordinary working Americans who pay for it. But I've also learned that those ordinary working Americans face major challenges and vulnerabilities that we can, and must, help them confront.

I also suspect Secretary Martin has shared some of my frustration that the public doesn't know more about the many unsung heroes of the Labor Department who every single day make a tangible difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. I'm thinking of a letter we received at Thanksgiving from a retired woman whose company had refused to pay her half of her pension. In Nelly Sidoti's own words, she was in "a desperate situation":

I must tell you that I was reluctant to contact the Labor Department. My feeling was that I would be dealing with a great big bureaucratic organization spending more time on the phone trying to find someone, and getting nothing but frustration.

I was wrong. Not only was I treated in the most polite manner, but Ms. Berger's ability and knowledge of the subject forced the parties involved to rectify the error (almost half of my pension!), and allowed me to collect the full amount. If it wasn't for her help, I know that I would have been forced to accept the minimal payment. A private attorney was totally out of reach. I am not a rich person.

It is reassuring to see how well this part of the government runs.

As Secretary Martin probably recalls, the Labor Department gets many such letters and acknowledgements -- not just from people who got back pensions to which they were rightfully entitled, but also from:

  • workers whose lives were literally saved by the safety measures put in place by OSHA;
  • low-wage garment workers whose employer stopped payment on their payroll checks three days before Christmas -- but who got their pay in time for the holiday, thanks to the swift and forceful actions of a determined DOL investigator in the Atlanta region;
  • out-of-work Americans who had unemployment insurance to keep themselves and their families afloat -- and thanks to new changes in the law, were able to start new businesses;
  • the 1,000 victims of a health insurance fraud scheme operating in the rural South -- who got back money they never expected to see again;
  • the more than 250,000 women who took the time to fill out a Working Women Count! survey, appreciative of the opportunity to voice their concerns and comments about conditions in the workplace-- and to be heard;
  • people like the young graduate of an innovative school-to-work program who learned that: "Getting an education means more than just going to school . . . I don't take things for granted any more, because everything I do now will affect me in life later on."

Of course, people don't hear about some of DOL's most important contributions because they're about what doesn't happen, such as:

  • the coal miners who before the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration were five times more likely to be killed in the mines than they are today;
  • the tens of thousands of American workers who have been spared fatal workplace accidents and occupational illness since the passage of OSHA and the adoption of protective standards;
  • the millions of working Americans who, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, no longer face agonizing choices between keeping their jobs and taking care of their loved ones when a family or medical emergency arises.

Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. But we've made great strides, not only in downsizing the department -- with nearly 1,000 fewer employees over two years -- but in changing the way we do business. When we started to take a good, hard look at what we could improve, we made some dramatic changes. For example:

  • the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation developed a new program that enabled them to find 12,000 missing pension beneficiaries -- people entitled to pensions they would not have gotten otherwise.
  • Out in the state of Washington, the Department of Labor joined forces across agency and sector lines to make sure laid-off Boeing Aircraft employees got the help they needed to find new jobs. The one-stop career shop the partners set up on-site at Boeing was up and running even before the company laid off 19,000 people.
  • Because people and communities facing base closings and loss of employment have enough to contend with as it is, they don't need long waits, bureaucratic red tape, and uncertainty about where to get help. So we sent in "swat teams" of job assistance counselors to communities where military bases were scheduled to be closed, giving people rapid, on-the-spot response to their reemployment needs. Last year alone, DOL helped an estimated 35,000 workers through defense conversion and diversification efforts.
  • Here at DOL, we saved $66.4 million net by reviewing the rolls of federal employees on long-term workers' compensation. Through such "periodic roll management," we expect to save at least an additional $230 million from now through 2000.

And I pledge that we will continue to improve the service we provide to customers and to expand our capacity to serve, even in the face of increased need and decreased resources.

As we look towards the future, the new name of this Committee can be a beacon, a reminder that in 1995 and beyond, meaningful "economic opportunities" will have to be linked to real "educational opportunities." Because more than ever before in our history, the best tickets to the American dream come in the form of education and skills.

The core challenge facing Americans is to adapt to a new economy that is fundamentally different from the old: an economy driven by advanced technologies and global competition; an economy in which productive skills are the keys to individual success.

The best way to increase the wages of most Americans is to continue our bipartisan efforts to give all Americans a decent chance to earn their own prosperity in this new economy.

The evidence is overwhelming that the sharper a person's skills, the higher that person's wages. Each year of education or job training after high school, whenever it occurs in the course of a career, is estimated to account for an increase in average incomes by 6 to 12 percent.

That doesn't mean that everyone has to get a college diploma. In fact, many men and women whose traditional education ends at high school can earn comfortable middle class incomes. All across this country there is booming demand for workers with technical skills -- sales technicians, physical and occupational therapists, desk-top publishing operators, x-ray technicians, computer-aided designers. All the evidence is that the demand will continue into the next century.

The even better news is that we are already on the right path, propelled by a strong bipartisan consensus in the last Congress on the importance of education and job training.

Many of the members of this Committee can be proud of such achievements as the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which established a framework for a national system of community work and learning partnerships. This framework contains none of the top-down, bureaucratic rigidity that has too often characterized federal programs and constrained state and local initiative and innovation. Instead, the school-to-work legislation builds on the successful models of school-to-work programs already in existence, providing states and localities with opportunities to plan and implement school-to-work systems appropriate for the resources, industry, and labor market needs of their areas. The federal role in this initiative is to help states move from individual school-to-work programs to comprehensive school-to-work systems, by providing limited, strategically timed infusions of "venture capital."

With the foresight of this Committee and strong bipartisan support, we have the Goals 2000 legislation. Not only has it set high educational standards for the U.S., but it has also put in place a framework for industry groups -- not the federal government -- to develop skill standards for their industries. These "occupational passports" give workers objective, portable, recognized certification that they have the skills to win and keep new jobs.

We have made significant strides in developing and implementing a reemployment system to help workers in transition find new jobs and new careers. This year alone, an additional 150,000 Americans who have lost their jobs will get the skills or the job-search help they need to find new ones.

The heart of the new reemployment system is a system of one-stop career centers, which offer job-seekers user-friendly information about, and streamlined access to, job counseling, computerized job banks, job search assistance, skills training and education, and supportive services like transportation.

As the next step along this path, we propose cutting through the clutter of confusing requirements and bureaucratic barriers by putting resources directly into workers' hands. This represents a fundamental shift from programs to purchasing power. Instead of feeding the budgets of bureaucracies -- federal or state -- we'll channel the resources directly into the pockets of ordinary Americans so they can get the skills they need -- at the time, in the place, and in the way that makes sense for them. Workers who need to start new careers, and low-wage workers who need to make a fresh start, will have a new gateway to better jobs--and information on what skills are in demand, to guide them through those gateways.

There is overwhelming evidence that a significant investment in American skills and education -- in the responsibility and good sense of Americans -- will pay off handsomely for everyone. Think about the G.I. bill, which helped transform a period of conflict and anxiety into an astonishingly prosperous postwar era. The G.I. Bill empowered ordinary Americans by giving them opportunities to acquire world-class skills. The rest is history -- indeed, one of the brightest episodes in our history. The dream of a secure, productive place in the middle class became a reality for a majority of our nation's people

Half a century later, America faces another turning point. It is time to renew our commitment to making the American dream a reality. Let's do our part to ensure that hard-working people who play by the rules get a fair shot at middle-class prosperity.

If you think that working Americans don't deserve protection in the workplace, or help adapting to the new economy, I can promise you a fight. But if you think Americans are rightly demanding that we do these things efficiently, creatively, and accountably, I can promise you a partner.

Thank you.

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