U.S. Secretary of Labor visits U-M Law

By Lori Atherton
U-M Law

“Keep an open mind, and the phone will ring with opportunities you’ve never dreamed of,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez told Michigan Law students during an informal meeting February 8. “I enjoy that I’ve had to reinvent myself several times over the course of my career.”

His other advice for students? Find a mentor, find a job you enjoy doing, and do your job and do it well.

Perez met with 2Ls and 3Ls who are taking Employment Law, Constitutional Law, Employment Discrimination, and Constitutional Litigation classes with Sam Bagenstos, the Frank G. Millard Professor of Law. Professor Bagenstos and Secretary Perez are former colleagues who worked together in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.

During the 45-minute meeting, Perez fielded questions from students focused on civil rights and employment issues.

About the enforcement of civil rights laws, he said, “Laws are only as good as the political will of the people enforcing them. We have a number of laws that have plenty of heft to them. The folks who oppose civil rights have been clever; they don’t go out with an agenda to repeal, they go out with an agenda to stop enforcement. What we need are resources for change, especially creative change. When someone says I care about ‘X,’ my first response is, show me your budget, because budgets are moral documents that reflect your values and priorities.”

Civil rights enforcement has to be done smartly, through “creative lawyering” and by “taking an existing framework and updating it,” said Perez, who served as assistant U.S. attorney general in the Civil Rights Division from 2009 to 2013 before being appointed the Secretary of Labor. In a time when budget constraints can inhibit progress, it’s important to forge partnerships with other organizations in order to do the work more efficiently, he said.

He cited as an example the efforts of three Department of Labor agencies—the Occupational Safety and Health Organization, the Wage and Hour Division, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs—whose representatives typically visit the same employers. “We need to think smart, maximize those partnerships, and multitask so that investigators are at least proficient in being able to spot issues.”

When asked what piece of the Americans with Disabilities Act needs more work, Perez cited employment. “We haven’t done enough to maximize the potential of those with disabilities,” he said. “We need to encourage employers to step outside the box and hire the disabled.” Those who do so, he said, can serve as ambassadors for other businesses to do the same. In addition, funding in the form of grants can be awarded to cities and counties that create workforce centers in jails and prisons to help the incarcerated learn demand-skills training.

“That’s the fun part of this job,” Perez said about serving in the Department of Labor. “Being a catalyst for change and seeing the innovation that can occur when you use all the tools in the toolbox.”

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