Two pieces of unfinished business remain for outgoing Labor Minister Walsh

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

Friday is his last day at the helm of the agency, with a departure that coincides with the release of the February jobs report. He is set to leave having made important progress, but with plenty of “work to do” remaining – as Walsh himself often says – on two key work fronts.

After 26 Yahoo Finance appearances in recent years, Walsh is set to take part in one final interview Friday morning before becoming CEO of the NHL Players’ Association.

Here’s what has come up again and again over the hours of back and forth.

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

An up and down story of leisure and hospitality

The leisure and hospitality sector — which includes a wide range of workers from performing artists to hotel clerks to restaurant servers — came up dozens of times during the secretary’s appearances as the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic affects how Americans socialize and travel.

Early on, Walsh’s tone was one of optimism as vaccines began to roll out.

“What was hopeful for me today was the hospitality and the restaurant numbers,” he said on June 4, 2021, adding “people are going back to these areas.”

But an abrupt change came later that year 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 was about 1.5 million payrolls short of where it had been before the pandemic.

A hiring sign is seen at the register of Burger Boy restaurant as many restaurant businesses face staff shortages in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., June 7, 2021. Picture taken June 7, 2021. REUTERS/Amira Karaoud

An employment sign is seen at the register of the Burger Boy restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. (REUTERS/Amira Karaoud)

In the 15 months since, the situation has improved, but the sector is still about half a million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level and is a stark contrast to the overall job market, which reached an unemployment rate of 3.4% in January, the lowest since 1969.

“It’s a sector that hasn’t fully recovered,” Walsh acknowledged in an appearance in December. He also discussed his push for more government involvement in the coming years around workforce development and job training “because a lot of people who may have 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 from the day Walsh took office was a focus on the black unemployment rate as a key economic metric.

From day one, Biden’s economic team has tried to shift attention to more detailed labor market benchmarks, such as the black and Latino rates and rates by gender.

Walsh addressed black unemployment in his first response during his first Yahoo Finance appearance on April 2, 2021, which came less than two weeks after he was confirmed by the Senate.

“Unemployment in the black community is over 9.6%, so we still have a lot of work to do here and that’s something we’re looking forward to,” he then said.

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

The 5.4% is “the second lowest on record since the 70s when we started recording these numbers,” Walsh noted in his most recent appearance in February.

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

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has made a concerted effort to use bills like the US bailout, the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and others as levers to push for more equality in the labor market in addition to forwarding broader economic development goals.

The ratio held just before the pandemic hit in February 2020, with black unemployment at 6.0% compared to 3.0% among white Americans. The latest reading in January 2023 finds the white unemployment rate at 3.1% and the black rate at 5.4%.

“We need to be much more intentional when it comes to black Americans,” Walsh said during a 2022 interview for Yahoo Finance’s Influencers, 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’ve got to create better pathways,” he added.

His likely successor appears poised to take on that mantle. When President Biden announced Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su as his pick to replace Walsh, she first thanked the president and Walsh, then added, “To all workers toiling in the shadows, to workers organizing for power and respect in the workplace, know, that we see you, we stand with you and we will fight for you.”

One area of ​​success: Manufacturing

Another area of ​​constant refrain from Walsh was around manufacturing. Both the overall job market (with about a million jobs) and the manufacturing sector (with about 200,000 jobs) have blown past pre-pandemic levels.

“The president has put so much emphasis on made in America, manufacturing in America,” Walsh noted back on September 3, 2021.

The mention of manufacturing has only increased as the administration has helped shepherd bill after bill, even as Congress focused on spurring that part of the economy.

“The president worked 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 construction, a lot of opportunity for growth,” Walsh said in January.

Ben Werschkul is the Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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