On January 7, President-elect Joe Biden, a self-described “union man,” announced that he had nominated Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), a former union leader, to serve as the nation’s next Secretary of Labor. If confirmed, Mayor Walsh will be the first union member in almost 50 years to be Labor Secretary. Biden officials released a statement saying that Mayor Walsh “has the necessary experience, relationships, and the trust of the president-elect to help workers recover from this historic economic downturn and usher in a new era of worker power.”
There’s no doubt that Mayor Walsh, who joined the Laborers’ Union Local 223 as a tradesman at age 21, will bring a significant shift to the policies of the U.S. Department of Labor under President Trump.
In 2014, his first year as mayor, Mr. Walsh signed an executive order requiring city vendors to certify that they would not commit wage theft by withholding or delaying payment to their employees. Two years later, Mayor Walsh assembled a Minimum Wage Task Force to push for a statewide $15 per hour minimum wage. Mayor Walsh was quoted as saying of the increase, “It has to be a legislative change the way the law is today. If we had the ability from the Legislature it would be a city of Boston minimum wage.” A Walsh-Biden team may push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from its current $7.25.
Mayor Walsh is now serving the last year of his second term. He has never left his native Dorchester, and has remained closely tied to his down-to-earth neighborhood when it comes to his policies and passions. The former leader of Boston’s Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization of 20 local unions, credits his recovery from alcohol addiction, in part, to his union ties. He was quoted as saying that at the lowest point in his addiction, “[e]verybody was losing faith in me, everybody except my family and the labor movement.”
As Mayor of Boston, Mr. Walsh fortified the city’s Residents Jobs Policy, which stipulates that local inhabitants should comprise the majority of workers on big construction projects. He also helped launch Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment, which focuses on credit improvement and financial coaching for low-wage workers. He secured a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to place low-income workers in union apprenticeships, with the goal of leveraging them into construction and hospitality careers. And he created Boston job centers and Boston’s first Office of Workforce Development and Office of Financial Empowerment, where unemployed residents can find help with resume writing, job training, interviewing and networking. Mayor Walsh’s long-term vision for the city, dubbed “Imagine Boston 2030,” outlines a comprehensive plan to create more affordable housing and working-class opportunities in a metropolis where the cost of living is steadily increasing.
More recently, Mayor Walsh has advocated for two bills that would make ride-share companies, including Uber and Lyft, pay a fee of 62 cents per $10 ride, as opposed to their current 20-cent-per-ride fee. Revenue from those fees, which the ride-share industry aggressively opposes, would benefit local governments, the Massachusetts transportation fund and the hurting taxi industry. According to the Mayor, this change would encourage carpooling, reduce carbon emissions, and help address Boston’s traffic problems.
Mayor Walsh has proven that he has a practical, managerial style that extends far past his ties to the unions. His election in 2014, with union card still in hand, caused concern among Boston business owners. Yet, in the year after his election, Boston enjoyed a boom in construction and project approvals, stamped by Mayor Walsh. And over time, Mayor Walsh earned respect in Boston for his ability to extend a hand across the aisle. He’s brought big companies like General Electric, Lego Education, and Reebok to Boston. In drafting the City’s first Small Business Plan, Walsh also established the first Small Business Development Center in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. And he launched StartHub, an online platform designed to connect and support startup enterprises throughout the Greater Boston area.
Focus as Labor Secretary
Mayor Walsh’s website outlines his focus on worker safety during the COVID pandemic, and his support for frontline workers in the City of Boston. The City recently implemented a “Get the Test” program, encouraging all Boston residents to be tested for COVID. City employees who are eligible for benefits will receive one hour’s pay every two weeks for COVID testing. The City has revamped its website to provide resources for childcare of essential workers, mortgage deferral programs, and food assistance programs.
Similarly, the Biden website states that “[t]he federal government must act swiftly and aggressively to help protect and support our families, small businesses, first responders and caregivers essential to help us face this challenge, those who are most vulnerable to health and economic impacts, and our broader communities – not to blame others or bail out corporations.” The President-elect has promised to increase the number of OSHA inspectors (now at the lowest level in its 49-year history), and seek an increase in funds for the agency.
Thus, a Secretary Walsh is likely to begin by tackling COVID workplace-related issues. This may include the reinstatement of regulatory changes that began during the Obama Administration but were halted by the Trump Administration.
Wage and hour
A Secretary Walsh is likely to toughen up current policies on worker classification. President-elect Biden has expressed support for aggressive enforcement against employers who misclassify employees as independent contractors in order to deny them benefits and protections. Employer misclassification of “gig workers” -- those working mostly in the service sector as independent contractors -- is also likely to be a priority. It is likely that Secretary Walsh will rescind the new regulations on worker classification recently issued by the Trump Administration.
Other wage-hour initiatives that employers are likely to see from a Walsh DOL include the following:
Raising the minimum salary for employees who are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act to $913 per week ($47,476 per year), as opposed to the current rate of $684 per week ($35,568 per year).
Restoring the “80-20 rule” and possibly increasing the minimum wage for tipped employees.
Changing the regulations regarding the fluctuating work week method of computing overtime.
Reviewing and withdrawing many of the Wage-Hour opinion letters that were issued during the Trump Administration.
The nomination of Marty Walsh as U.S. Secretary of Labor is a undoubtedly a win for unions. Yet, given the results that he achieved as Mayor of Boston, employers may be able to look forward to practical and sensible changes in the workplace.