MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later this hour, we want to talk about how you might better handle some of the difficult or just awkward conversations you might be having around the dinner table this holiday season. That's coming up.
But first, to what has been an ongoing political conversation through these last few years of economic difficulty in the U.S. That conversation is about the best way to create jobs and grow the economy. Today, we speak with one of the people in the middle of that conversation. He is Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. He took the post in July replacing former Congresswoman Hilda Solis and moving over from the Justice Department where he focused on civil rights. Now he's in the headlines calling for a dramatic increase in the federal minimum wage and overhaul of this country's immigration system and new regulations governing how eldercare workers are to be paid. We wanted to talk about all those issues and more. So we're joined now for our newsmaker interview with the U.S. secretary of labor, Thomas Perez. He's actually at the White House, and we caught up with him there. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on the new post.
THOMAS PEREZ: It's great to be with you. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your listeners.
MARTIN: You know, you've had a very interesting career in public service. I mentioned your work at the Justice Department where you were a career civil rights prosecutor and later led the division. And you were a county councilman in the jurisdiction where you live. I wanted to ask exactly which of those experiences is most relevant to your work as labor secretary?
PEREZ: All of them are because all of the jobs I've had the privilege of having, Michel, are about expanding opportunity for people. When I was in local government, the rubber hits the road there. We worked very closely to ensure that people had the skills to succeed. We worked on things like a living wage at local government. We did similar things at state government. And at the Justice Department, we were about expanding opportunity to earn, the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to vote - all of the pillars of self-sufficiency.
And so I feel blessed in the sense that the jobs that I've had throughout my life have prepared me to do the job that we're doing now, which is helping the president grow the economy from the middle out and ensure that there are ladders of opportunity for everyone. And one way to do that is to make sure that people get an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.
MARTIN: So your first big initiative is an increase in the minimum wage. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Your proposal is that it would rise to $10.10. Why is that the magic number?
PEREZ: Well, I mean, it's the magic number because nobody who works a full-time job should have to live in poverty. And currently, there are people working in minimum-wage jobs who are making $14,500 a year. And a family of four living on that salary lives below the poverty line. And that's just unacceptable. So $10.10 will allow a family of four - when you factor in tax credits - to move above the poverty line.
Currently, that same family is living roughly 17 percent below the poverty line. And this would allow them to live above the poverty line. And it's not only the right thing for those 15 million workers who would benefit along with their families. But it's a smart way to grow the economy because when people have more money in their pockets, they spend it. They're not stashing it in offshore bank accounts. They're pumping it right back into the economy, and that's good for growth.
MARTIN: Well, you know, the argument, of course - and you've heard it - is that this would actually suppress hiring by making it more expensive to hire. In essence, that it favors the few at the expense of the many. How do you answer that?
PEREZ: Look at the data. Look at history. Time and time again, the studies have demonstrated that raising the minimum wage does not force employers to hire less. It doesn't hurt the people it's designed to help - quite the contrary. I've spoken to so many employers, including a forum we did last week in Louisville, Kentucky, and they want loyal workers. They want to make sure they can do their best to promote their workforce and retain their workforce. And paying a decent wage is one of the most important things you can do. So I think the studies have been pretty overwhelming in debunking that myth. And I think it's noteworthy that - I was reading a poll the other day that two-thirds of small business owners support increasing the minimum wage.
MARTIN: Well, but if it's a rational economic growth strategy, and if it's good for business, why don't they do it voluntarily? Why do you need a regulation for that?
PEREZ: Well, I think it's important to set a floor nationally so that what you get paid for doing the same work in Georgia is not different from what you would get paid up in Washington State.
MARTIN: But don't products cost differently depending on where you are? I mean, the same house can cost very different things depending on what part of town you're in. Why is that different?
PEREZ: Well, but I think Congress made a judgment when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed that there are certain basic minimum standards that we should have for workers across the country. It's not just wage standards, but safety standards. And I think that was very important. We just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act. And FDR called it the second most important piece of worker legislation after the Social Security Act, and I agree. And over the years, there've been 22 increases in the minimum wage under Republicans and Democrats alike, including one of my predecessors, Elizabeth Dole, who was very proud of the work she did in this. And it's always enjoyed bipartisan support because there is that recognition that people deserve an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. And nobody who's working a full-time job should have to live in poverty. And...
MARTIN: Let me jump in just to say, if you're just joining us, we are speaking with the U.S. secretary of labor, Thomas Perez. We actually caught up with him at the White House today. Another rule that caught a lot of attention, the Labor Department just announced a new rule that extends minimum wage and overtime requirements to elder care workers and people who work with disabled people at home.
The argument is - the argument against it is the same - pro and con are the same as you just discussed for the minimum wage so that it could either price people out of work, particularly since these are people who tend to be hired by individual families as opposed to companies. But the question I wanted to ask you about this is the rap on this administration and you, by extension, is looking at your career - which is distinguished - but that you've spent your entire career in public service, that you've never met a private-sector payroll. So the criticism is that you really don't understand how things work in the so-called, you know, real world. And I just want to ask how you respond to that?
PEREZ: Well, if you're going to create jobs, you talk to the job creators. And throughout my career in local government, state government and here at the Department of Labor, I'm very proud of the work that we've done in partnership with employers, with workers, with faith-based organizations alike to address critical challenges that were stifling growth in communities and making it difficult for businesses to grow. I was out in Louisville, Kentucky, as I mentioned, last week, and I was at the Ford plant there. The Ford plant in Louisville is making more cars than any plant in North America right now. Four years ago, they had something like 900 employees. Now they're 4,400 and growing. And what they're saying to me - Ford and others - is thank God the president invested in the auto industry. And by the way, whoever says manufacturing is dead isn't looking at the data.
MARTIN: OK. I'm sorry, Mr. Secretary, I think I was asking about you.
MARTIN: And your perspective on these issues.
PEREZ: Well, and again, I think what's relevant to me is I - a lot of what we've been able to accomplish has been the fact - a function of the fact that we've listened to employers and what they tell us they need. And what they need is they need skilled workers. And so we work with them to help up-skill people. They need to make sure that, you know, people have a basic level of safety. And so we reject those false choices that say you either have job growth or job safety.
PEREZ: And we provide commonsense job safety. These are things that responsible employers want, and that's how they grow their business. And that's what we've been responsive to.
MARTIN: We have about three minutes left and I had two more questions for you.
MARTIN: So briefly - well, this is not a brief question, but, unfortunately, I'm going to have to ask you to be brief. You've also jumped into the immigration issue. You've called on lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Why is that an issue for you, for your portfolio?
PEREZ: Well, the Department of Labor plays a very important role in many of the programs that are administered under the immigration laws - certifications of foreign workers, etc. And again, getting back to your last question, this question is the same. I've talked to business leaders across this country, and they tell me if we want to grow the economy and grow our business, pass immigration reform. If we want to sustain the Social Security Trust Fund, pass immigration reform.
MARTIN: Well, because why? Why? What's the connection?
PEREZ: Well, because the Congressional Budget Office says look at the fiscal impact of the bill that was passed in a bipartisan fashion in the Senate. And it has demonstrated that if you want to grow GDP, you pass immigration reform. You'll have more people working outside the shadow economy, so they're taxpayers. And when there are more taxpayers, there's more tax revenue coming into the economy. And as a result, the economy grows.
MARTIN: In the time that we have left, one more question about you, which is - as you know, the unemployment rate stands now at 7.3 percent. But we also know that many people are not counted because they've stopped looking. And we know that employment with some groups, particularly African-American males and teenagers, is much, much higher than that. Is that your measure of success? How will you know - what measures should we use evaluate whether you have succeeded in this job?
PEREZ: Well, I think there are a number of measures that I use and I would fully expect others to use. And that is how well have we done in bridging opportunity gaps? In our home health regulation that you just mentioned, we're helping 1.8 million workers get access to basic wage and hour overtime protections. That helps to close the opportunity gap. How well are we doing in addressing the skills gap? This is a gap for workers. It's a gap for employers. It prevents and inhibits employers' ability to grow their business. It inhibits people to climb those ladders of opportunity into the middle class. And I spend every day thinking about how we address these skills gaps and inequality gaps because that March on Washington, which we just commemorated, was a march for jobs and justice. And there are too many people right now across this country of all races who want to get those ladders into the middle class and are not being able to do so, through no fault of their own. And so I look at it as our job, at the Department of Justice - Department of Labor to be that catalyst for opportunity.
MARTIN: You moved down the street, right? You do remember that.
MARTIN: You are going to go back to the right office...
PEREZ: A block down the road. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...when you leave the White House, right?
PEREZ: Yeah, I hope so.
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
PEREZ: I feel very blessed in both DOJ and DOL to be able to expand opportunities for people in many different ways.
MARTIN: That's the secretary of labor, Thomas Perez. He was kind enough to join us by phone from the White House. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. We hope we'll speak again.
PEREZ: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.