President Obama Nominates a Secretary of Labor With the Right Stuff

On March 18, 2013 President Obama announced the nomination of Thomas E. Perez to be the next secretary of labor. Mr. Perez currently serves as the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. He previously served as the secretary of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which enforces workplace safety laws, wage and hour laws and a range of consumer rights laws. In Maryland, Perez "helped implement the country's first statewide living-wage law, because he understood that a minimum wage should be a wage that you can live on." In his announcement of this appointment President Obama said, Perez, "understands that our economy works best when the middle class and those working to get into the middle class have the security they need on the job, a democratic voice in the workplace, everybody playing by the same set of rules."

Mr. Perez was a member of the Montgomery (MD) County Council and earlier in his career, he spent time as a federal prosecutor, and chaired the interagency Worker Exploitation Task Force, which oversaw a variety of initiatives designed to protect vulnerable workers.  He served as Special Counsel to the late Senator Edward Kennedy.  He also taught law at the University of Maryland and was a part-time professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health. A closer inspection of his record shows he has had direct experience in combating worker exploitation.

 Worker exploitation and human trafficking: Perez served on the Worker Exploitation Task Force, which protected vulnerable workers, while working in the Justice Dept. under Attorney General Janet Reno. The task force targeted human trafficking, discrimination in labor markets, and other exploitative practices. The task force secured multiple convictions involving the trafficking and exploitation of women and children workers, and helped lead to calls around the country for stronger anti-trafficking laws both at the federal and state level.

Labor protections for domestic workers: Millions of domestic workers in the United States make low wages because they aren’t protected by any labor laws, a problem Perez sought to address while serving on Montgomery County’s City Council, where he pushed for contractual labor law protections and a minimum wage for such workers. After three years of debate, and after Perez had left the council, those protections became law in 2008 and gave domestic workers contractual labor rights they still lack in most of the United States.

Back Pay for immigrant workers: Mr. Perez would take over the Dept. of Labor in the middle of Obama’s push for immigration reform, and he has experience dealing with immigration and labor issues. While serving in the Justice Dept., Perez investigated claims that employers were using Alabama’s new immigration law to avoid paying immigrant workers. “We continue to be concerned that certain employers may be using HB56 as an excuse not to pay workers,” he said, adding that he would “throw the book” at employers who weren’t paying workers. “We’re here. We will prosecute you. That is impermissible, period.”

Wage Theft and Misclassification: Mr. Perez is no stranger to the problems of wage theft and independent contractor misclassification. He designed Maryland’s wage-theft enforcement in 2007. Back-wage collections more than doubled between fiscal years 2007 and 2008 and an innovative program targeting employer misclassification under the leadership of Secretary Perez.

Mr. Perez has the kind of credentials that should allow him to fill the big shoes left empty when Hilda Solis of California announced her resignation on January 9, 2013.

By Patty Gates

Legal Developments