WASHINGTON (AP) — The recent spate of fast-food worker strikes is another sign of the need to raise the minimum wage for all workers, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"It's important to hear that voice," he said of workers demanding higher pay in protests that have grown in size steadily. The latest protests were Thursday in cities including New York, Chicago and Detroit.
Perez's comments came in a wide-ranging interview, his first since taking the helm of the agency a little over a month ago following a contentious confirmation process.
Formerly the nation's top civil rights enforcer, Perez said late Wednesday that he sees many parallels between his old job and his new post as labor secretary. His primary role, he said, will be as an advocate for workers.
Besides supporting higher wages, Perez also plans to continue the work of his predecessor, Hilda Solis, in cracking down on companies that violate labor laws and making sure there's a "level playing field" for employers who follow the rules.
He compared the recent protests to the demands of demonstrators in the 1963 March on Washington who sought a national minimum wage to give workers better living standards.
While he declined to address fast-food workers' demand to raise wages to $15 an hour, Perez said he is taking a lead role in President Barack Obama's push to boost the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. Obama has called for the wage hike in several recent speeches on the economy, but Congress has not acted.
"For all too many people working minimum wage jobs, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity are feeling further and further apart," Perez said.
Senate Republicans who opposed Perez's confirmation had complained that his record of vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws at the Justice Department foreshadowed an overly activist approach at Labor. But Perez said he's made a point of meeting with business leaders and stressed that his previous tenure as head of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation showed an even-handed approach that won praise from business groups like the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters Thursday he expects Perez to be even more aggressive than Solis was in enforcing worker safety and punishing employers that misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime.
Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor issues, said he worries Perez might "push the envelope" on independent contractors.
"We're concerned, and we're watching, and we're going to do what we can," he said, though he pledged the chamber would be cooperative.
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