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Labor Secretary On What Workforce Recovery Looks Like

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today with a focus on jobs and the U.S. economy amid concerns that the road to full economic recovery from the pandemic may be steeper than anticipated. According to data released Friday by the Labor Department, U.S. employers added 266,000 jobs during the month of April. That is far fewer than analysts had been expecting given other recent signs of recovery such as business reopening, consumer spending increasing and new unemployment claims falling. Joining us now to talk about all this is Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Mr. Secretary, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

MARTY WALSH: Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: So first of all, forecasters had been expecting up to a million jobs added in April, but these jobs numbers just released by your department are much smaller. What are your thoughts about why that is?

WALSH: You know, I think that under normal circumstances, adding 266,000 jobs to the economy is a good number. But obviously, we're not in normal times. The - we're definitely seeing the economy go in the right direction. We still have a steep hill to climb. If you look at over the last three months, however, we've averaged over 500,000 jobs on average over the last three months. So we've added 1.5 million jobs. That shows good regain there as compared to the previous three months. Our economy's definitely recovering, but there are still millions in - of people in economic pain.

MARTIN: So what do you think is holding employers back from adding more jobs?

WALSH: Oh, it's the pandemic. I mean, there's no question about it. People - we're still recovering from the pandemic. There's still concerns as far as businesses. And, you know, one of the bright sides of this report, there's a couple - there's a bunch of bright sides to this report. But one of them was that we saw the leisure and hospitality industry grew immensely, and that includes restaurants. We also saw more people in the month of April looking for employment in the previous months. But we're still in the midst of pandemic. We still have issues around child care. We still have issues around vaccines. We still have issues around people getting the virus. So we still have a ways to go here.

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask one more question about this. Are you at all concerned that this could be a jobless recovery?

WALSH: No, I don't believe that. People are going to go back to work. The people are going to get back to work. And, you know, the president has made it very clear with the American Rescue Plan about strengthening and getting this economy moving forward. And if you just, like I said, take the last six months, you know, the first three months, we averaged 60,000 new jobs a month. You take the last three months, we've averaged over half a million in those three months. We are definitely moving in the right direction. Hospitality is opening in the different areas. We saw an increase in retail as well, in-person retail. But there's still lots of people still working from home or looking for employment.

MARTIN: And you see that some employers are complaining that they can't find workers. What's your take on that? You see that Montana, for example, is pivoting. They're ending the unemployment, the federal - their participation in the federal unemployment benefits program. And then they're pivoting to sort of a bonus program for people who take a job. Like, what is your take on that? I mean, obviously, some economists disagree with that. I mean, but some are saying that it's because the unemployment benefits are so generous that employees are holding out. What's your take on that?

WALSH: Yeah. You know, I don't like when people talk about generous unemployment benefits because unemployment benefits are there to help people in very difficult bad times. And many Americans have gone through very difficult bad times for the last year. I think what we're seeing is that there are still major barriers to getting people back into the workforce - child care, lack of child care, also schools, you know, hybrid learning, in-person learning and online learning, people worried about the virus, people - about getting vaccinated, people that are caretakers.

So there are still barriers there. I'm not saying that's the whole excuse but - the whole reason, but, you know, I was on a show earlier today, and they were talking about how, you know, some business leaders are saying there are 7 million jobs available, and people don't want them. So in reality, what they're saying is out of the 9-plus million people that aren't working right now, 7 million are - would rather be on unemployment benefits. I just - that that's just not true.

People want to be back in the workplace. People want to be back working. People want the benefits. With unemployment benefits, you don't get health care. You don't build your pension up. You don't build all of those programs that you need to move forward. So I think as we move forward here in the coming months, that conversation and that kind of way of thinking will be - will not be discussed much longer.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Secretary, it's Mother's Day weekend, so I hope you'll forgive me if I focus not just on mothers but on women. As you know, women have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Overall, more than 4 million women have dropped out of the labor market since the start of the pandemic, and nearly 2 million of them have not yet returned often because of issues with child care or other caregiving responsibilities.

Now, the president's American Families Plan does try to address this in several ways, such as increasing funding for child care, creating incentives to provide family leave. But that's down the road. Is there something that can be done now to address this disproportionate impact on women?

WALSH: Yeah. A couple years ago, the - couple weeks ago - excuse me - the president and the White House released $30 billion to go into the CARES economy to deal with that specific issue, child care. And it's about making investments in the child care facilities around our country. And that money is out and getting out around the country right now. So that's one aspect.

And you're absolutely right. We need to make sure if we're going to have a strong recovery, a strong equitable recovery, we need to get women back into the workforce. And that's something that the president's focus on. It's something that I'm focused on here at the Department of Labor, as well as our unemployment numbers in the Black community. Today, it's 9.7%. So our communities of color have higher unemployment rates than their white counterparts right now. And we've always seen that discrepancy as far as, you know, going back generations. But we have to be real intentional about investments that we're making to make sure that as we recover from the pandemic, it's an equitable recovery for all, for women and for people of color.

MARTIN: So women's participation in the economy is at its lowest point in more than 30 years. It's about, like, 57%. Is that a problem?

WALSH: That's a big problem. We need to make sure that women get into the - get into - continue to get into the economy. I mean, in my previous job as mayor of the city of Boston, 52% of the households in our city were led by women. And when you think about that, they're the primary earners in the family. And having women out of the workforce would be detrimental to our economy.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what's going to be your North Star in doing this job? How will you know that you've succeeded in it?

WALSH: Making sure that when workers wake up in the morning, they have an opportunity to go to a good-paying job and they have an opportunity to have benefits, come home to their family safe at night and to be able to put a roof over their heads and put a pathway into the middle class. That's ultimately I think what my North Star will be when I'm done with this job.

MARTIN: That is the secretary of labor, Marty Walsh. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

WALSH: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.