Two unfinished business remain for outgoing Labor Secretary Walsh


During his two years as Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh was one of the Biden administration’s most trusted economic commentators, coming from the Labor Department, the White House, from Davos and even from the COVID quarantine.

Friday is his last day at the helm of the agency, his departure coinciding with the release of February’s job report. He will leave after making important progress but still has work to do — as Walsh himself often puts it — on two key work fronts.

After 26 appearances at Yahoo Finance over the past few years, Walsh will have one final call Friday morning before becoming executive director of the NHL Players’ Association.

Here’s what kept popping up over the course of the hours of back-and-forth.

President Joe Biden shakes outgoing Labor Sec Marty Walsh during a ceremony announcing his appointment of Julie Su as Secretary of Labor during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 1, 2023.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden shakes hands with outgoing Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh during a ceremony at the White House March 1. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

An up and down story about leisure and hospitality

The leisure and hospitality sector – which includes a wide range of workers from performing artists to hotel workers to restaurant waiters – popped up dozens of times during the minister’s appearances as the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic shaped fashion how Americans socialized and travelled.

Early on, Walsh’s tone was upbeat when the vaccines were rolled out.

“What gave me hope today was the hospitality and restaurant numbers,” he said on June 4, 2021, adding, “people are coming back to those areas.”

But later that year, an abrupt change came after successive waves of coronavirus variants.

“That number is not where we want it to be,” Walsh said six months later, on Dec. 3, 2021, when the sector had about 1.5 million fewer payrolls than it had before the pandemic.

A hiring sign is seen on the Burger Boy restaurant register as many restaurant operations face staff shortages in Louisville, Kentucky, the United States, June 7, 2021.  Picture taken June 7, 2021. REUTERS/Amira Karaoud

A hiring sign can be seen at the checkout at the Burger Boy restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. (REUTERS/Amira Karaoud)

The situation has improved in the 15 months since, but the sector is still around half a million jobs below its pre-crisis level and stands in stark contrast to the overall labor market, which hit an unemployment rate of 3.4% in January, the lowest since 1969 .

“It’s a sector that hasn’t fully come back yet,” Walsh admitted in an appearance in December. He also spoke of his urge for more government involvement in the coming years in the areas of human resource development and job training, “because many people who left an industry during COVID don’t want to come back.”

“We need to be much more aware when it comes to Black Americans”

Another top priority since the day Walsh took office has been to focus on the black unemployment rate as a key economic metric.

From day one, Biden’s economics team has tried to draw attention to more detailed labor market benchmarks such as black and Latino quotas and quotas by gender.

Walsh addressed the black unemployment rate in his first response during his first appearance on Yahoo Finance on April 2, 2021, less than two weeks after his Senate confirmation.

“The unemployment rate in the black communities is over 9.6%, so we have a lot of work to do here and we’re looking forward to that,” he said at the time.

Two years later there has been undeniable progress, with that rate having fallen to 5.4% in January. For Biden’s team, that’s painfully close to the record low of 5.3% set under then-President Trump in August 2019.

The 5.4% rate is “the second-lowest on record since the ’70s when we first started recording those numbers,” Walsh noted during his last appearance in February.

Another area where the government appears to have made some progress is the ratio of black to white unemployment. The government wants to narrow the gap between the two rates—all too often, black unemployment rates are twice as high for blacks as for their white counterparts.

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to leverage bills such as the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and others to push for more equity in the labor market and to advance broader economic development goals.

The ratio remained flat just before the pandemic hit in February 2020, with the unemployment rate for blacks at 6.0% compared to 3.0% for white Americans. The most recent reading in January 2023 shows that the white unemployment rate is 3.1% and the black unemployment rate is 5.4%.

“We need to be much more targeted when it comes to Black Americans,” Walsh said during an interview for Yahoo Finance’s Influencers in 2022, noting that the unemployment rate for Black Americans remains stubbornly high compared to other groups.

“If you dig even deeper into some of the jobs that black Americans have, they’re not high-paying jobs, so we need to create better ways,” he added.

His likely successor seems poised to take on that mantle. When President Biden announced Assistant Secretary of Labor Julie Su as his choice to succeed Walsh, she first thanked the President and Walsh, then added, “To all workers who work in the shadows, to workers who care for power and respect in the country organize workplace, know that we see you, we stand by you and we will fight for you.”

One area of ​​success: Manufacturing

Another area where Walsh consistently distanced himself was manufacturing. Both the overall labor market (by about a million jobs) and manufacturing (by about 200,000 jobs) have exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

“The President has placed such an emphasis on Made in America,” Walsh noted on Sept. 3, 2021.

Mention of manufacturing has only increased as the government has helped herd bill after bill, despite Congress’ focus on boosting that part of the economy.

“The President has been working with Congress on a lot of legislation, whether it’s the Infrastructure Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPs Act, where we’re going to see a lot of manufacturing, a lot of construction, a lot of building, a lot of opportunity for growth,” Walsh said in January of this year .

Ben Vershkul is the Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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