Editor’s Note: Marty Walsh is the US secretary of labor. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to change the way we think about work, showing us how much we depend on essential workers – including many in the most vulnerable and lowest-paid professions. And it has made us aware that the conditions of our work are not set in stone but can be transformed – when we deem it necessary.
To mark that this Labor Day is like no other before it, the department I lead is inducting the essential workers of the Covid-19 pandemic into the US Department of Labor Hall of Honor. These essential workers join previous inductees like pioneering Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and mine workers’ heroine Mary Harris “Mother” Jones – all people who have shaped work in this country in profound and positive ways.
This honor is an appropriate commemoration of all that essential workers have done for us, but it’s not enough. We have to turn our appreciation into action.
I don’t believe a return to the habits and expectations we had for our working lives before the pandemic is good enough. There are still too many workers and families struggling under systems that keep them stressed, precarious, exploited and excluded.
This Labor Day, I invite workers and employers all across the United States to imagine a better partnership – one that is more just and more sustainable – as we meet the challenges ahead.
To create this new reality, the federal government and the Department of Labor must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with workers morning, noon and night.
That means we must value and invest in our care economy, addressing the needs of workers and their families so that they might go to their jobs with the assurance that their loved ones’ needs are attended to professionally and compassionately.
We must strive toward a modern, inclusive workforce – one where good jobs, opportunities to move ahead and the ability to join a union are commonplace.
And we must reinforce the guardrails against catastrophe when an unexpected setback comes one’s way – that reliable health care, support for moving to new careers when the old ones are no longer fruitful and secure retirement keep workers’ dignity intact.
Don’t get me wrong, we still have work to do. But we’ve added nearly 4.5 million jobs to the economy since President Joe Biden took office. This progress creates momentum we can harness to make transformative change.
Our agenda is ambitious, but it is also completely necessary to build a nation that reflects the values and ideals of the people of this country. It includes higher wages, secure retirement, protections from discrimination, affordable education from early childhood to after high school, better access to mental health services and so much more.
We’ve worked up a good head of steam already. The American Rescue Plan delivered one of the biggest middle-class tax cuts in history through the child tax credit and reopened our economy. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework promises to create millions more good jobs throughout the country, while bringing much-needed improvements to our water, internet and transportation systems.
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Here at the Labor Department, we have calculated that our Wage and Hour Division has recovered more than $148 million of the back wages workers have been shorted. We’ve invested $2.8 billion in job training and employment services for America’s workers, including $90 million to support training and employment opportunities for workers displaced by the pandemic.
And we’ve issued 18 final rules, both rescinding prior rules and implementing new ones in order to improve the health, safety and economic security of workers.
Our nation is changing in positive and sustainable ways. We’re listening and responding to communities who once could not expect us to do right by them. We’re restoring to workers the power and voice that have languished for a generation. We’re reducing the harm we’ve been causing our planet. We’re learning that our own good health requires quality care for those we share the bus with or stand in line next to at the grocery store.
Let’s not miss this moment. Together, let’s forge a New Labor Day, one that binds our fortunes together in shared prosperity, security and democracy for all.