Submitted on August 6, 2021
Performance Management Center
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration & Management
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20210
Dear Mr. Johnson,
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986 to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America, proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers, and assesses policies with respect to how well they further those goals. EPI submits these comments on the Department of Labor’s (DOL/Department) request for input on its FY 2022-2026 Strategic Plan and Evidence-Building Plan.
The Department intends to update its FY 2022-2026 Strategic and Evidence-Building Plans to reflect the priorities of the new administration. Specifically, the Department seeks to ground its framework on building opportunity and equity for workers; ensuring safe jobs, essential protections, and fair workplaces; improving the administration of and strengthening worker safety net programs; and producing gold-standard statistics and analyses. EPI acknowledges that these goals are critical to restoring the Department’s mission of promoting the welfare of all workers. EPI also recognizes the Department’s current efforts to reform our broken labor law system, boost public investments, and guarantee fair wages and expansive protections for workers.
Specify a Vision for Racial Equity
One of the Department’s high-level goals is to “Build Opportunity and Equity for All” with specific plans to address systemic inequities that veterans, women, and individuals with disabilities face. While a step in the right direction, this goal misses a critical and pervasive barrier: systemic racial injustice. In neglecting to explicitly include language surrounding racial equity, the Department also misses an opportunity to advance one of the top priorities of the Biden-Harris administration. In fact, one of President Biden’s first acts in office was an Executive Order on “advancing racial equity through the federal government” aimed at broadly guaranteeing equal opportunity for all. As such, EPI strongly urges the Department to include an expansive and clearly defined vision of racial equity, with the ultimate goal of minimizing, if not eliminating, racial disparities in the workplace and in economic outcomes. Such a vision would entail not just removing barriers towards participation in existing programs but would commit to the further development of the workforce and/or establishing new federal policies and programs to address the root causes of racial inequality.
Rooting out racial inequality should be central to the entirety of the Department’s work as it directly impacts the issues covered in its stated goals. For example, Black and Latinx workers, working in more dangerous occupations, face higher risks of injury or death on the job, and they have disproportionally borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic – both in terms of death tolls and job losses. Workers of color are also more likely to experience minimum wage violations and are victim to persistent pay gaps, even when accounting for skill and education levels. Further, Latinx workers are 70% more likely to experience unemployment than white workers and Black workers are twice as likely to experience unemployment as white workers. Despite significant changes in the law or presidential leadership, these disparities have persisted exactly because they are rooted in longstanding systems and institutions. To meet the Department’s goals of addressing weakened enforcement, wage gaps, and the unemployment insurance crisis, it must explicitly do so through the lens of racial equity, and it must institutionalize these efforts to last beyond the Biden administration.
Strengthening Collective Bargaining
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of unions in protecting workers and promoting safety and fairness in the workplace. President Biden has similarly acknowledged the importance of collective bargaining in lifting up workers by giving them “a stronger voice to increase wages, improve the quality of jobs and protect job security, protect against racial and all other forms of discrimination and sexual harassment, and protect workers’ health, safety, and benefits in the workplace.” As President Biden suggests, unions are key to creating a fair balance of power between workers and employers. Unfortunately, facing sustained attacks from private corporations and politicians, unions have steadily declined in the last four decades. ￼￼Consequently￼, inequality has increased and wages for working people have stagnated over most of that period.
Unionization is also directly relevant to our urgent national conversation around racial equity. Unions and collective bargaining help shrink the Black–white wage gap, due to the fact that Black workers are more likely than white workers to be represented by a union and that Black workers who are in unions get a larger boost to wages from being in a union than white workers do. The decline of unionization has played a significant role in the expansion of the Black–white wage gap over the last four decades. An increase in unionization would help halt and reverse those trends.
The Department must focus its efforts on strengthening workers’ ability to unionize and bargain collectively, or the lion’s share of growth in this country will continue to be funneled away from working people toward the wealthy. The Department has already signaled its intent to address the issue with Secretary Marty Walsh’s membership as Vice-Chair of the President’s Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. The Department could also, for example, use the bully pulpit in supporting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. EPI recommends that the Department double down on its commitment to strengthening workers’ ability to unionize, and ensure it pervades all aspects of its work, by including it as an overarching goal in its Strategic Plan.
Improving Oversight and Management of Permanent and Temporary Work Visa Programs
The Department plays a primary role in seeking to ensure that some of the main pathways to the United States for migrant workers are fair and equitable, and in seeking to ensure that U.S. workers have a fair opportunity to apply and be hired for jobs before employers can turn to visa programs for labor shortages. One key element of this responsibility is setting and enforcing the requirements for employers that must first test the labor market—in other words, adequately recruit U.S. workers—before they can hire temporary workers in the H-2A and H-2B visa programs, or before hiring through the employment-based permanent immigrant preference categories. The other key component is setting appropriate wage levels for recruiting U.S. workers and that will be paid to migrant workers who are hired through the H-2A, H-2B, and H-1B temporary work visa programs—an issue that EPI has published extensively about—as well as the employment-based preference categories that require a permanent labor certification.
In both cases, the Department can and should do much better to protect the wages and working conditions of both the migrant workers employed through visa programs and similarly situated U.S. workers, and the Department should therefore be explicit about improving its oversight and management of permanent and temporary work visa programs in its strategic goals and objectives, which would primarily fall under the responsibility of the Employment and Training Administration.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important issue.
Director of Immigration Law and Policy
Economic Policy Institute
Economic Policy Institute