Exactly one year ago today, I raised my right hand and was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Labor. Every day since, I have been grateful for the privilege and have embraced the responsibility.
I came to this job with the strong belief that the Department of Labor is the Department of Opportunity. And I have worked every day to extend that opportunity – the chance, through hard work and responsibility, to live out your highest and best dreams – to more people.
In a short amount of time, we have achieved a great deal. Yesterday, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the most substantial reform of federal job training programs in more than 15 years. The new law will strengthen the workforce system, making it easier for workers to acquire in-demand skills and for businesses to find the talent they need.
In 2014, the Labor Department is putting more than $1 billion in grant money on the street to advance job-driven training programs. In particular we have lifted up apprenticeships as a successful workforce development strategy for the 21st century. This “learn while you earn” model isn’t just for plumbers and pipefitters – it works in IT and mechatronics too.
Expanding opportunity also means making sure hard work is rewarded with a fair wage. No one who works full-time should have to raise their families in poverty, so we have fought relentlessly for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Although Congress has failed to act, 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) have raised their minimum wages since the beginning of 2013. And over the last year, the Labor Department has extended minimum wage and overtime protections to some 2 million home health care workers, while working on new rules to increase the minimum wage for workers on federal service contracts and give more workers access to overtime pay.
Also this year, we have taken bold steps forward to protect our workers’ safety and health on the job. We have completed a life-saving rule, decades in the making, to limit miners’ exposure to coal dust and move us closer to eliminating black lung disease. And we’ve taken the next steps toward protecting workers from inhaling high levels of crystalline silica. This one has been a long time coming – we’ve known about this danger since Secretary Frances Perkins convened a group of experts to study silicosis prevention nearly 80 years ago.
The most memorable moments of the last year have been my direct encounters and conversations with hard-working people striving for opportunity. I’ve met with fast-food workers, faith leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs. You have to make house calls in this business, so I’ve traveled to 25 states over the last year. From Manchester to Milwaukee to Morgantown and from Syracuse to San Antonio to Seattle, I have heard remarkable stories of strength and resilience.
Like Katherine Hackett, a single mother from Connecticut with two sons in the military, who was out of work for more than a year and wore a hat and coat around the house this winter because she couldn’t afford to turn the thermostat above 58 degrees.
Like the minimum wage worker in New Jersey who had to tell his son he couldn’t afford to buy him a 16th birthday present.
Like the aspiring young electrician in San Francisco who told me his apprenticeship program had given him a “golden ticket” to the middle class.
Sometimes, what you remember best is a sound – like the click-click-click of the oxygen tanks worn by miners suffering from black lung.
I think about these folks every day. Their struggles and aspirations are what get me out of bed in the morning. As I look ahead to the challenges of the coming years, I draw inspiration from them and so many others seeking opportunity.
Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec.