By Jordan B. Schwartz and Eric J. Conn
On March 18, 2013, President Obama nominated Thomas E. Perez, a Harvard Law School graduate and current federal prosecutor with a long track record of defending civil rights and vulnerable workers, to become the next U.S. Secretary of Labor. Perez would replace Seth Harris, the Acting Secretary of Labor and former Deputy Secretary of Labor, who has been filling the role since Secretary Hilda Solis resigned from the post in January.
Thomas Perez’s Background
Since October 2009, Perez has served as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. From 2006 to 2009, Perez served as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor. In that capacity, he led efforts to target Maryland companies who were engaging in workplace fraud by imposing new restrictions on employees who had been misclassified as independent contractors. Perez’s efforts led to the implementation of Maryland’s Workplace Fraud Act of 2009, with him stating that the Act would “ensure that employers who attempt to cheat the system, their workers, and their competitors, will pay a steep price for their actions.”
During his tenure as Maryland’s Secretary of Labor, where his jurisdiction included Maryland’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, Perez distinguished himself as a strong and vocal defender of safety protections for Maryland workers. According to Fred Mason, the president of the Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO, Perez fought to increase funding for the state occupational safety and health plan, which had been underfunded under Governor Robert Ehrlich. Specifically, Mason stated that “that department went for a couple years with essentially no money to hire people to enforce laws that were already on the books.” After Perez took office, “we began to make a comeback of sorts, in terms of having the necessary workers to do the inspections.” Similarly, Peg Seminario, safety and health director at AFL-CIO, said she considered Perez “an excellent choice” to head the Labor Department.
The Nomination of Thomas Perez
At a time when the President has promised to create more jobs and overhaul immigration policy, Mr. Obama has presented Mr. Perez, who would be the only Hispanic in the cabinet, as an American immigration success story, whose own history would help him tackle important current controversial issues. At the White House on March 18, Obama called Perez a “consensus builder” who “understands that our economy works best when the middle class and those working to get into the middle class have the security they need on the job, a democratic voice in the workplace, everybody playing by the same set of rules.” At the same press conference, Perez stated that:
“as you well know, our nation still faces critical economic challenges, and the department’s mission is as important as ever. . . . I am confident that together with our partners in organized labor, the business community, grass-roots communities, Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike, we can keep making progress for all working families.”
Not surprisingly, this nomination has drawn praise from worker advocates, and most Democrats have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for this nomination. Senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement that as a former Secretary of Labor in Maryland “and a fierce defender of workers’ rights and civil rights, [Perez] is uniquely situated to serve in this important post at a critical time when Congress will be considering issues like immigration reform, reducing unemployment, and continuing our economic recovery.”
Congressional Republicans, however, have indicated a potentially rocky confirmation process and voiced their concern that Perez is the “wrong man for this job.” In particular, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has stated that “this is an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination” as “Mr. Perez has aggressively sought ways to allow the hiring of more illegal workers.” Additionally, Representative John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee and thus a key house Republican on worker safety issues, has stated that “our country needs a labor secretary who will put America’s jobs before his own” and cited “troubling allegations in the media and an independent investigation” about Perez.
The Confirmation Hearing
During the April 18, 2013 confirmation hearing, Mr. Perez stated that he would seek a balance of protecting worker safety while also encouraging economic growth. Specifically, Mr. Perez told the Senate, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that “job safety and job growth are not mutually exclusive” and thus “it is not necessary to choose between one and the other.” When asked what his top priority would be as labor secretary, he responded “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He also testified that other priorities would be reauthorizing the Workplace Investment Act with bipartisan support, pension security, enforcement of wage and hour laws, job safety and equal opportunity in the workplace.
Republican questioning turned to his tenure heading the DOJ civil rights division, and in particular his involvement in a reported “secret deal” with the city of St. Paul, MN, in which the DOJ agreed to drop two whistleblower cases against the City in exchange for the City’s withdrawal of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could impact implementation of Fair Housing regulations. Senate Republicans have been vocally critical of Perez for his involvement in the deal that left the whistleblower with nothing. The Senate and House Judiciary Committees released a joint staff report regarding the controversial deal. Here is an excerpt:
“In early February 2012, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez made a secret deal behind closed doors with St. Paul, Minnesota, Mayor Christopher Coleman and St. Paul’s outside counsel, David Lillehaug. Perez agreed to commit the Department of Justice to declining intervention in a False Claims Act qui tam complaint filed by whistleblower Fredrick Newell against the City of St. Paul, as well as a second qui tam complaint pending against the City, in exchange for the City’s commitment to withdraw its appeal in Magner v. Gallagher from the Supreme Court, an appeal involving the validity of disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act.”
According to the joint staff report, this deal cost the U.S. Government the opportunity to recover as much as $200 million.
The Confirmation Vote
The actual confirmation vote was scheduled to move ahead on April 25th, but the whistleblower case controversy has gained some momentum, and resulted in a delay of the vote. Specifically, Republicans planned to call one of the whistleblowers from the St. Paul case as a witness in a hearing related to the effectiveness of whistleblower enforcement generally. Fearing that Congressional Republicans would use that hearing to further attack Perez’s involvement in the St. Paul cases without Perez present to defend himself, both that hearing and the confirmation vote were delayed. Notwithstanding the additional heat, Perez is still likely to be confirmed in a vote next week.