Marylander Thomas Perez digs in at Labor Department

Six weeks after taking over the U.S. Department of Labor, Marylander Thomas E. Perez is receiving praise from unions, concern from business leaders and hope from others that he will expand the agency's mission.

Perez, a former Maryland labor secretary, has stepped into the Cabinet post as the agency considers new regulations that could affect pay and working conditions for millions of Americans, from stonecutters to home health care workers.

And labor analysts say the 51-year-old Takoma Park man may also be more able than past secretaries to move the agency beyond its traditional role as an enforcer of labor laws, giving it more influence over economic policy and the nation's stubbornly high unemployment.

"The department has really had no power or voice in policy making, even in this administration," said Thomas A. Kochan, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Secretary Perez is in a perfect position and is well equipped to take on these issues."

Perez, a former Montgomery County Council member and onetime candidate for Maryland attorney general, was formally sworn in last week by Vice President Joe Biden. He actually took over the post soon after his Senate confirmation in late July.

Perez has spoken frequently about tackling unemployment, though the department is limited in what it can do. The Labor Department reported Friday that unemployment had fallen to 7.3 percent — its lowest point since 2008 — though the decline came largely because more than 300,000 people dropped out of the workforce.

But there are indications that Perez is moving quickly on some long-standing issues. The agency announced last month that it had approved regulations setting new targets for federal contractors, including a goal that 7 percent of their workers be people with disabilities, and 8 percent be veterans.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities, 14.1 percent, is nearly double that of the overall population.

Contractors aren't required to hit the targets, but they must show that they tried. If they don't, they could lose their contracts.

Days earlier, the agency proposed new rules limiting exposure to crystalline silica, a byproduct of cutting stone, concrete and other construction materials. Inhaling the dust can cause lung cancer and other illnesses.

Labor unions applaud the early effort by Perez.

"He clearly has a strong record with regard to both civil rights and workers' rights," said Chuck Loveless, director of federal government affairs for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation's largest unions.

"There is no doubt in my mind that where he perceives there to be injustice, he's going to take a very careful look at it," he said.

But business groups have objected to the regulations and remain wary of Perez. Some worry about asking prospective employees to disclose disabilities. Others have questioned whether the exposure targets set in the proposed silica rule are achievable.

The new regulations have "demonstrated to me a lack of appreciation and understanding for how rules have a direct impact on good-faith employers who are trying to comply and … do the right thing," said Michael Lotito, a San Francisco lawyer and co-chair of the Workplace Policy Institute, part of the management law firm Littler Mendelson.

The Labor Department, which was created in 1913 and today has 16,635 employees, is expected to make decisions soon on other controversial rules. They include whether the minimum wage should apply to more than 2 million home health care workers and whether companies must disclose how much they pay lawyers to advise them when workers begin unionizing.

But MIT's Kochan and others say Perez's background in politics and in government makes him well suited to push for broader changes than workplace regulations.

Perez, previously head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, has become a lead voice in support of President Barack Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25, for instance.

As part of that push, he has spoken favorably of the fast-food workers who have gone on strike for higher wages in cities across the country.

Analysts also say the agency should play a more prominent role in helping public schools and community colleges to prepare students for jobs that are in demand — and that's something Perez has stated is a top priority. He is scheduled to join Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold on Monday for a roundtable discussion of that issue.

Lotito said it's an area where the department and some businesses may be able to find agreement.

"Employers will say, 'Yes, the unemployment rate is high, but we've been looking for such and such an employee," Lotito said. "There's huge disconnect because there are obviously many people that are … unemployed, but there are many positions that employers can't fill."

Perez, the only Hispanic in Obama's second-term Cabinet, faced a difficult confirmation in the Senate, but not because of his stances on labor issues.

Republicans objected to positions he had taken at the Justice Department. One top Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, called him a "crusading ideologue."

The Senate ultimately confirmed Perez in July as part of a larger detail to settle a dispute over nominations and filibusters.

A Buffalo native, Perez is the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. His father, a doctor, died when Perez was 12. Perez put himself through college with scholarships and jobs as a trash collector and in a warehouse.

Perez launched a brief run for Maryland attorney general in 2006. He was knocked off the ballot by the state Court of Appeals, which found he lacked the 10 years' legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution.

Gov. Martin O'Malley picked Perez to serve as the state's labor secretary, a job he held from 2007 until 2009.

"The U.S. Department of Labor can, must, does and will play a critical role in expanding opportunity by solidifying the critical building blocks of self-sufficiency and upward mobility," Perez said during his swearing-in ceremony Wednesday. "The Department of Labor is the department of opportunity."

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