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In first week, Walsh talks about unions, jobsite inspectors, COVID-19 standard

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Dive Brief:

  • Shortly after being confirmed as secretary of labor on March 22, Marty Walsh highlighted a number of issues that he sees as critical priorities for the American workforce, including making sure workers feel safe on the job, revisiting the need for an emergency temporary standard for COVID-19, putting inspectors out in force on worksites, getting women back to work and rebuilding the middle class through union membership.
  • In the days following his swearing in, Walsh shared his thoughts on the issues he faces in his new role and emphasized his vision for the Department of Labor and OSHA.
  • “What we want to do is make sure we bring the confidence and the respect back to those workers who are working on behalf of the American people every single day. OSHA is a big part of it,” Walsh told PBS’s Judy Woodruff. “We are going to be hiring hundreds of new OSHA inspectors. We’re going to get them trained up. We’re going to get them out into the jobsites.”

Dive Insight:

Walsh’s comments came as President Joe Biden’s administration vowed to focus on its $3 trillion Build Back Better infrastructure push, fresh off passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan earlier in March. While Walsh touted the importance of that legislation, he also carved out specific areas that he said were important to getting back to work, including issues important to contractors.

For example, while the American Rescue Plan extended $300 weekly supplemental unemployment benefits through Sept. 6, Walsh said those payments aren’t necessarily the best way to get people back to work. Many contractors experienced that early in the pandemic, when then-$600 supplemental weekly payments meant some workers earned more via unemployment benefits than at work.

“We can’t continue to extend unemployment benefits and not to get our economy back up and going,” Walsh told Woodruff, before highlighting his experience in the construction industry, and returning to his message of workers feeling safe on the job. “People need to be safe in their work site. I’m a former construction worker, and safety needs to be the No. 1 priority, not just in construction, but also all across the different industries all throughout our country.”

ETS not dead yet

Along those lines, Walsh also left open the possibility of OSHA issuing an ETS for COVID-19. While President Biden gave the agency a March 15 deadline to consider the necessity for a uniform set of rules to combat the spread of the virus in the workplace, it didn’t meet it, and Walsh said the issue was still on the table.

“I have another briefing today to talk about the emergency temporary standard, and then hopefully we’ll have something we’ll be all looking at some point real soon,” Walsh told the Washington Post in an interview published March 24. “We’re going to take our time to get it right.”

Unions and the middle class

As an appointee of Biden, who has pledged himself to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” Walsh, a former labor organizer himself, highlighted his own affinity for unions.

“If you look at the decline of the middle class and you look at the decline of the labor movement, there’s a correlation between the two of them,” Walsh told PBS. “And I think that when you see more people joining unions and getting into them, you’ll see more people in the middle class.”

At the same time, when asked if the administration could help reverse the trend of declining union membership, he said it wasn’t his job, or that of the administration, to build unions’ member rolls.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s up to the administration or me to do that. It’s about organized labor. That’s their role and responsibility to do,” Walsh told PBS. “But I do think the Labor Department has an opportunity to have a bigger role. There’s an administration now in Washington that is labor-friendly.”

Women returning to work

Another issue Walsh highlighted at multiple points in his public comments was funding for enhanced child care programs to help women get back to work. That was the focus of his comments Thursday as he the toured Bright Start Early Care & Preschool in Washington, D.C.

“As people go back to work, women are disproportionally impacted by the COVID crisis and having good childcare, this is great childcare, that’s one of the reasons we came here,” he said after walking around the facility and meeting employees, children and parents, according to The Hill.  

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