Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks at the South Florida Economic Summit, Miami, Florida, January 16, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]


Thank you, Dr. Padron, for that wonderful introduction.

Before I begin, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Dr. Padron's remarkable leadership as President of Miami Dade College. Earlier today, I visited the college and saw firsthand that Dr. Padron has built not only the largest institution of higher learning in America — he's also built one of the finest. Dr. Padron and Hispanic civic leaders just like him are the reason why the high school dropout rate for of Hispanics in this country has dropped by half in just a decade — from 28% of Hispanic 16- to 24-year-olds in 2000 to 14% in 2011. Dr. Padron is a tremendous leader in not just at his school but in his community; quite simply, South Florida is a better place because of his work. Thank you for being here.

To Chairman Al Dosal and the entire Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce: thank you for the gracious invitation to speak today. I couldn't be more thrilled to be here in Miami among so many of business and civic leaders.

In so many ways, the people in this room represent the hopes and dreams of people working hard to make a living, secure their place in the middle class, and leave their children and grandchildren a little better off than they were. When you succeed, when your companies and your clients are doing well, when you're competitive both here and abroad... your community succeeds. America succeeds.

The people in this room help power the American dream. Without you, without the enterprise and opportunity you help create, it wouldn't be possible.


I've been extremely fortunate in my life; I'm a product of that dream. Like some of you here today and so many in the greater Miami community, my story is an immigrant story.

My parents were born in the Dominican Republic. My mother, father, and their families fled the country during the height of the brutal Trujillo dictatorship. My parents moved to America, got married, and my father served with distinction as a legal immigrant in the US Army. My parents loved America, and taught my four siblings and I to work hard, aim high, and always make sure the ladder of opportunity is down for those in need.

They raised us in Buffalo, New York. In so many ways, Buffalo's story is the American story, and the values it represents inform my work as Labor Secretary. It's a gritty, hardworking, humble place — one where country and community trump party or religion and we are defined by our common values and loyalty to one another. Washington, D.C. could learn a lot from Buffalo.

In the Buffalo of my childhood, a thriving middle class was the engine of economic growth. Buffalo — and America — offered you a very basic bargain of opportunity. Hard work was rewarded with fair wages and decent benefits; that no matter if you owned a business, ran a business, or just swept the shop floor... you could buy a house, save for retirement, and leave your kids a little better off than you were as a child as long as you took responsibility and played by the rules.

Like so many American communities, Buffalo took a hit. Robotics replaced manpower. Globalization sent jobs overseas. Machine shops ground to a halt. The footholds of middle class families and businesses began to slip, and that basic American bargain slipped with it.

Economic Revival

Over my first six months on the job what's struck me most is the common resilience we share as Americans. That spirit of revival, the American comeback — it's once again shining through the clouds of recession that formed in the midst of the worst financial crisis in our lifetimes. And that's due in no small part to the people in this room and your counterparts in communities across this country.

You've created 8.2 million new jobs over the last 46 straight months of private sector job growth. The stock market is soaring; businesses are relocating to America, choosing our productivity and ingenuity over our foreign competition; the American auto industry is resurgent; exports are up, our trade deficit is down, and products stamped "Made in America" are being sold in greater numbers all over the world.

Right here in Miami, the unemployment rate is down 4.5% from its recession high in July 2010. Unemployment is the lowest it's been since August of 2008. Businesses like yours have increased employment by over 200,000 new jobs.


So there are bright spots in the economy. We've made a lot of progress, but we're not out of the woods yet. The hole of the Great Recession was a deep one. As business and civic leaders, everyone in this room experienced that first hand. And as leaders, you also know that rule number one when you're facing a challenge is: don't make it worse.

We need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and making the situation worse. Because Congress failed to act, emergency unemployment benefits expired at the end of last year for more than 1.3 million Americans. In a tough economy, after losing their jobs through no fault of their own, these Americans have now lost a critical lifeline that has allowed mothers and fathers to continue putting food on the table while they searched for new work.

But this doesn't just hurt those workers and their families. This hurts your businesses. It's a further drain on our economy. These workers aren't cashing their checks in offshore accounts. They're immediately spending it on basic necessities, providing for their families while injecting capital into our local economies. We must restore these emergency benefits in order to continue climbing our way back to a fully healthy economy.

Restoring these unemployment benefits is imperative in the near term, but we need to also be thinking beyond stopgap measures. We need to be more aggressive in creating jobs, addressing unemployment, cutting our deficits and expanding opportunity. President Obama has a plan that will do just that.


First, we must invest in our workforce. Everyone in this room understands the value and critical importance of a skilled, well-trained workforce for your businesses to expand and compete. Equipping workers with the skills they need and employers are hiring for isn't just a workforce development issue, it's an economic development issue.

I have had the privilege of speaking with many CEOs in my first two months on the job, and I have been struck by the consistency of the responses I have gotten in my conversations. Business leader after business leader, representing companies of all sizes in various sectors, has emphasized the absolute necessity of having a pipeline of skilled workers to fuel their company's growth.

When we invest in the skills of our workers and provide sturdy rungs of education and training on which any American can climb, it benefits our entire economy. Through their hard work and perseverance, American workers have the opportunity to secure a foothold in the middle class. Plus, our businesses have the well-trained workers that allow them to compete in the global marketplace and grow their companies here at home. The smartest, best trained workforce in the world can be our country's competitive advantage. Our businesses can't grow without it.

TAACCCT and Broward College

The TAACCCT program — that's a terrible acronym that only the federal government could come up with, and it stands for Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training — is one of the Labor Department's most powerful tools for building the kind of sturdy skills infrastructure your businesses rely on. Over the last two years through TAACCCT, we've invested $1.5 billion in community colleges nationwide, with grants that build the institutions' capacity to serve the American workforce and allow them to expand innovative training programs.

But here's the most important part: they do so in direct partnership with local employers, the local workforce system and other community groups. By helping workers get updated credentials or make career transitions to other fields, TAACCCT is one of the tools we can and must deploy to help those people who have been jobless for an extended period of time.

Right here in South Florida, Broward College was the lead in a nation-wide consortium of community colleges. Partnering with schools from Newark, New Jersey to Long Beach, California, the consortium received $24.5 million to create eight stackable and latticed credentials that allow people to move into good jobs in supply chain management. Broward submitted the proposal after extensive consultation with businesses right here in South Florida — let's start training people for exactly what your businesses need!

Skills development is one of the pillars of President Obama's strategy to grow the economy. But investments in skills will only grow our economy if they're driven by industry and the needs of employers. And no agency or level of government can do it alone.

Public Service and Partnerships

I've spent most of my career in public service at just about every level of government. Each of those experiences has given me a profound appreciation for the impact — the necessity — of partnerships. I had the honor of serving on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. There's no better way to understand where the rubber meets the road than to serve in local government. Quite simply, we were only as effective as the breadth and depth of the coalition we built. The right hand had to talk to the left — business had to work with labor, labor had to come to the table with management, the public sector had to appreciate the needs of the private sector, and the private sector had to appreciate the problems the public sector was trying to solve.

When I served statewide as Maryland's Secretary of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, we had enormous success building an industry-driven workforce system. We were successful because we sat down with leaders from various employment sectors and the labor unions that serve them to piece together the specific employment needs of each. We were successful because we listened to Chambers of Commerce just like yours here in Miami, and engaged them as meaningful partners. And then we sat down with community colleges — Maryland's version of leaders like Dr. Padron — to implement training programs that fed directly into job openings and led directly to business growth.

And my time serving at the Federal level has only reaffirmed my commitment to creating partnerships. Two of the first people I engaged when I set foot in the Labor Department were Penny Pritzker, the President's fantastic Commerce Secretary and a business leader in her own right, and Tom Donahue, the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. How can we create jobs, put people back to work, and give workers and businesses the skills they need to compete if we're not engaging the business community?

Job Creation: Infrastructure

As we come together to form partnerships and invest in the skills of our workers, we also need to make sure we're doing everything we can to speed up the pace of job creation. Investing in skills helps workers and businesses get a piece of the pie — but we should be making the pie bigger, too. There are actions we can take right now to do just that.

Strong physical infrastructure is critical to a thriving economy. Right now America has over 100,000 bridges that — as the President likes to say — are old enough to qualify for Medicare. There are ports up and down the coasts that aren't ready for the new supertankers that are going to start coming through the new Panama Canal in a couple years.

Growing businesses or those looking to invest in America aren't going to locate near old roads or outdated airports. Your companies and communities can't out-compete India or Brazil with bad railways, slow internet, or crowded highways.

Physical infrastructure has always been a smart investment. It's always been a bipartisan investment. Dwight Eisenhower — a Republican stalwart — was the father of American infrastructure investment. And yet, as a share of our economy, we're investing less in rebuilding America than we did two decades ago. We're being out-invested by our competition like China and Germany.

We need to fix that. We need to invest infrastructure investment here at home that will keep us competitive in the long term and immediately create good-paying jobs in the process.

Job Creation: Trade

And while we invest at home, we need to expand abroad. America sells more products made within our shores to the rest of the world than ever before. But there's no reason we shouldn't continue working, together, to expand new markets and create lasting jobs and opportunity in the process.

The President did just that when he solidified trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia. And we're committed to negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a Transatlantic Trade Partnership that will allow us to create a high standard, enforceable trade agreement with nearly two-thirds of the world markets. Markets, might I add, that have historically locked American companies out.

Infrastructure and trade are just two ideas, but they'll have an immediate and much needed impact. No party — Democrat or Republican — has a monopoly on ideas. But any good idea requires partners on both sides of the aisle to make it a reality. And we need business and community leaders — all of you in this room — as partners too. We're all in this together.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Third, we have to fix our broken immigration system and pass comprehensive immigration reform. It's an economic, law enforcement, and humanitarian imperative. Not only would we bring 11 million people out of the shadows... we would create economic growth, promote entrepreneurship, strengthen Social Security and help reduce the deficit.

Immigration reform could add a trillion dollars to our economy, and ensure your businesses can attract the best and brightest talent from around the world — and keep them here. When I meet with business leaders across the country, I hear consistently from them that this must be a top priority.

The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill that will do just that, but the House has so far failed to act. They need to hear from people like you — business leaders, community leaders — the people who understand and appreciate the overwhelmingly positive impact this legislation would have on your community and our country.

Health Care

Fourth, in the richest nation on earth, no one should have to die or go broke because they couldn't afford health care. That's not a sustainable business model for our country. That's not who we are.

Middle-class families, small business owners, mothers and fathers: we all deserve the security of knowing that no accident or illness can compromise their dreams — or the dreams of their children.

Despite what critics may say, we're already seeing the positive effects of Obamacare. Health care costs are increasing at the slowest rate in 50 years. For your business' bottom line, the cost of employer-based health care plans have gone up at about a third of the rate they were going up when President Obama took office.

More than 6 million Americans have now either signed up for a private health insurance plan or for Medicaid. Nearly 1.8 million of these consumers signed up for private plans in December alone. That's nearly five times as many people as signed up in October and November combined. Of the October-December enrollees, almost 160,000 were from Florida.

But we need to be doing more — especially here in Florida. You guys are one of the uninsurance capitals of the United States! In fact, you're second only to Texas in percentage of your citizens that are uninsured. That's not very good company to be keeping!

Almost 25% of Florida's population — some 4 million people — were uninsured in 2011. Eight percent of our nation's uninsured live right here in the Sunshine State. That's unacceptable. That's hurting your business' bottom line — it's driving up your healthcare costs.

Governors in states across this country — Democrat and Republican alike — have expanded Medicaid with the support of business leaders just like you. They've done that because it's a smart business decision for their states. It dramatically and efficiently expands coverage, which helps lower costs to you and your businesses. And yet, Florida's refused to expand their Medicaid program.

Miami alone has nearly 160,000 uninsured young adults, the third most of any city in the country (behind Dallas and Houston). And the state of Florida has more than a million eligible, uninsured Latinos.

There is no question there's a real need and demand for quality, affordable health insurance, nowhere more so than here in Florida. This administration is ready to help you, and if you're willing to work with us, we can lower premiums for your businesses make this state healthier in the process.

Businesses and Certainty

Lastly, we have to stop the endless parade of political distractions coming out of Washington. It's harming our growth and hindering our recovery. If I've learned anything partnering with businesses at every level of my service, it's that above all else, you value certainty.

Last month's bipartisan budget deal demonstrated that members of Congress can muster the will to agree on constructive solutions to tough problems. I hope they'll get to work in that same spirit on the opportunity agenda put forward by President Obama.

While I can't promise they will, you and your businesses will always have the certainty of a willing partner at the U.S. Department of Labor. As much as possible, I'm here today to personally commit to certainty. I'm confident over the next three years we'll agree on a lot of things. I'm also confident we'll disagree on a lot of things, too. But I will always be transparent. That you can count on; of that you can be certain.


The Labor Department learned a lot from the development of the Section 503 regulation, which sets targeted hiring goals for Americans with disabilities and replaces good-faith efforts with clear measures.

In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, former Republican Governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge called our Section 503 rulemaking "a model for how government can work with stakeholders in crafting regulations that are practical and effective."

Taking the time to hear and address both the key priorities of worker advocate groups and the legitimate concerns of businesses made the final product more effective. It's a model for how I've addressed problem solving throughout my career, and it remains my leadership philosophy today. You can count on it.


Exactly five years ago, our economy was hemorrhaging 800,000 jobs in a single month. But we came together as Americans. We shared sacrifice, and worked together to restore shared prosperity.

We should be proud of how far we've come. But we must be resolute in acknowledging the work that lies ahead. 2014 could be a breakthrough year for America.

Skills; immigration; infrastructure, jobs and opportunity; — these critical to your success as business leaders; they're critical to our success as Americans. But we need your help. We won't succeed without you.

Together we can rebuild an economy that grows not from the top down, but from the middle out, fueled by opportunity and hard work and enterprise. Together, we can restore the basic bargain of America: that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or where you come from, you can make it if you try.

That's America at its strongest. Let's work together to get there.