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The 'Great Resignation' is giving workers more power, Labor Secretary Walsh says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This pandemic has radically changed work in the U.S. As the coronavirus spread across the country, a lot of commerce and services shut down. But then, as things gradually picked back up, employers across almost all sectors came to the same realization. They no longer had enough employees to do the jobs. For a variety of reasons, workers were quitting and moving on - workers like Mary Waters in St. Louis, Mo., who quit her job at a grocery store last June.

MARY WATERS: I was there in a customer-facing job in the middle of COVID with no health insurance, and I was only making, like, 10.25, 10.15 an hour. And that just added up to barely enough to squeak by.

CHANG: Well, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has been talking to workers in 60 American cities over the last year, and today he presented the Biden administration's plan to address the so-called great resignation. In a speech on the Good Jobs Initiative today, Secretary Walsh said resignation is not the whole story here. And I asked him what he meant by that.

MARTY WALSH: Quite honestly, people are looking to create better situations for them and their family and working in better-paying jobs. The pandemic has really put a light on inequality in the jobs in our country. We have inequality as well with communities of color in access to good jobs but inequality of people accessing good jobs all across the board. And I think when you think about the great resignation, some of the biggest numbers - we've seen young people allegedly not going back to work, but the biggest job gain we saw in 2021 was people between the ages of, I believe, 25 and 50...

CHANG: Fifty-four.

WALSH: ...Fifty-four going back in the workforce. We saw lots of people retiring early that might have left two or three years earlier than they normally would have because of the pandemic. So I think there's a lot more going on in this country than just people saying, oh, I'm quitting work. I think they're quitting work for reasons. And I think that there's also - people are using their voice for better opportunities for themself and their family. But collectively, that's having a big shift here in America.

CHANG: You mention - I mean, there has been job growth. There has been a record year of job growth. But to be clear, the labor force is still rebounding, right? Like, we're still not at pre-pandemic levels.

WALSH: No, we're not. But we're still in a pandemic, so I think that we can't lose sight of that. And I think there are many different reasons why people might not be in the workforce - I think, you know, child care No. 1; people worried about their health No. 2; families of two workers working out of the same home realizing that, you know, maybe we can make it on one salary. Or maybe entrepreneurship is another issue. Women still have left the workforce. There's lots of different things going on here. And it's not as simple - you know, it's not one, two, three, these are the answers for it. It's more complicated than that.

CHANG: You mentioned child care. And yet in your speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, you speak about how the challenges of child care fall overwhelmingly on women. Tell me; how does the Biden administration plan to tackle the issue of child care costs?

WALSH: Well, child care can't be just addressed by the Biden administration. Child care has to be addressed by - from local government all the way to state government to the federal government to the private sector. And it's a system that needs to be invested in, and it's - quite honestly hasn't.

I mean, I've spent time in local - in state government. I was a representative. I spent time in city government. Now I'm in the federal government. And quite honestly, President Biden laid out in his Build Back Better agenda an opportunity to improve child care.

CHANG: Right. But that agenda is not passing Congress yet. I mean, he says he wants to pass chunks of it, but is child care going to be in one of those chunks?

WALSH: I believe child care will be in one of those chunks. I also believe that it's not a federal government solution. It's a - all of government and all of the private sector as well. We need to do better in the child care space.

We lost lots of child care providers in the last two years because of the pandemic. And even previously to that, those child care providers were having a brutal time trying to keep people working in their industries 'cause they were paying so low 'cause they couldn't afford to pay higher. So this is looking at revamping a system I think we have to do long-term - for the long-term stability of our country.

CHANG: Well, beyond the child care industry, I'm wondering, what advice do you give employers who are having trouble right now filling positions? What do you say to them?

WALSH: Well, I think you have to look at the business model and see how you treat your employees. Is it - are people not coming to work because they're afraid of the coronavirus? Are people not coming to work because they don't feel they're not getting good - better benefits, they're not getting health care, they're not getting good wages? I think we have to look at the business model to make sure that you're improving.

I mean, many corporations around this country have set a minimum wage of anywhere from 15 to 18 to $20 an hour to retain and attract people. Are you creating opportunities for pathways within your companies for people to get progression and move into a company, get into higher roles, better pay? I think that's a lot - that's what a lot of people are looking at today in our country.

CHANG: Well, how about when it comes to workers who are leaving not because of pay but because of, say, they feel undervalued? We hear this anecdotally, and a recent MIT analysis found that that is a reason driving a lot of these job changes. What's the federal government's role in trying to fix that - this problem of people feeling undervalued at work? Is there a role?

WALSH: I don't know if it's the federal government's role to do that, but I think it's about treating people respect (ph). I mean, I think that a lot of people look on the federal government for answers for everything. The federal government can't change a culture in a company that's losing people because that culture isn't a good culture.

But what we can do in the federal government is work with companies on job training programs. What we can do in the federal government is help companies and individuals know their rights and how we move forward. We can do all that stuff. And I think that that's what this administration - the president has tasked me with here at the Department of Labor to do that and build stronger relationships.

CHANG: U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, thank you very much for joining us today.

WALSH: Thank you for having me today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ayen Bior
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Sarah Handel