Secretary Marty Walsh On The Vaccine Mandate

Secretary Marty Walsh On The Vaccine Mandate
Alexandra_Koch / Pixabay

The following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with Marty Walsh, U.S. Department of Labor Secretary, from CNBC’s Capital Exchange event, which took place today, Wednesday, September 15th. Video will be available on

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Interview With Secretary Marty Walsh

Ylan Mui: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time on Capital Exchange.

Secretary Marty Walsh: Oh, thank you. It's great to be on here. I’m excited.

Mui: So we are just going to jump right into it because President Biden recently made a major announcement that is going to change the way that businesses fight this pandemic. He said that any business with at least 100 employees will now have to ensure their workforces fully vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests. And your agency is going to have to make sure that this actually happens. When are we going to see the details of how this is going to work? And how long will businesses have to comply?

Secretary Walsh: Certainly over the next few weeks we're going to be working. We're working on it now. We'll be working on it the next few weeks to get it done. But the President made exactly the right move yesterday. I mean, when you think about where we are in our economy, 4.5 million jobs added since the President took over. Last month, the jobs number obviously wasn't as high as we would have liked. We're seeing the Delta variant raise. We need to make sure we keep Americans safe, healthy, alive. We need to keep our economy moving forward. We need to continue to open up. We can't go backwards.

Mui: But what would you say to Republicans or even some business groups that say, this is a government overreach, this is going too far.

Secretary Walsh: It's not about Republicans. It's not about businesses. It's about everybody. And quite honestly, I think businesses are going to welcome this because businesses want to open. It doesn't help businesses not to be open, it doesn't help businesses not having their employees either working in the office or on Zoom, I guess, for the last year and a half. This is about keeping our economy moving forward. This should not be a political issue. You know, I heard some people pushing back on it yesterday, watching some of the news around the country, you know, and governance pushing back on it – this is about keeping people safe and healthy. I'm a former mayor, I mean, as mayor, my first priority is to make sure people were safe and healthy from the virus, they weren't getting it. My next priority was making sure businesses were supported during the pandemic. And then as before I came down here to Washington, my next role was to get businesses open and get our economy back up and running again. That's what the President wants.

Mui: So is there going to be a penalty if a business cannot or will not comply with those new rules?

Secretary Walsh: Again, we're going to work on it. I think businesses shouldn't look at this rule and say well, I'm not going to comply with it. How about we work together to see how we move forward. Our goals are all the same. Our goal is to have a robust economy. Our goal is to get the economy, American people back to work. Our goal is to make sure Americans are safe, Americans are alive, Americans don't get sick. We don't overrun our hospital emergency rooms. That's our goal right here. So rather than put up a fight, how about we work together to move forward?

Mui: Okay, so you say over the next few weeks you guys are going to come out with some rules and details and guidance, etc.? Is there going to be support for businesses that say, I just don't have the infrastructure – maybe a medium-sized business – to comply with this. You know, health, safety, privacy records – there are so many implications here. Will you guys be able to provide support for them?

Secretary Walsh: Again, we're going to work on all that through the rulemaking process, which we're going to –  takes a little bit of time to do the rulemaking process. But again, before we put up the obstacles and barriers and the reasons why we can't do it, I think we just wait to see how we move forward here and how we can do it. Employers of 100 people basically is pretty simple. If you have employees, you were asking – making it mandatory for them to get vaccinated. If they refuse or can't or medical reasons, whatever reason is, there'll be a component that they get tested weekly, so we can catch the variant if somebody is sick. It's pretty, pretty simple at the end of the day, what we want to do here, and at the end of the day, it's about keeping our economy open. If you look at the July job numbers, we added a million jobs to our economy here in the United States of America in the month of July. If you look at the Delta variant In July, the numbers are very low. You fast forward one month, we had a 243,000 jobs for our economy in the month of August. And the Delta variant in many states around the country was going through the roof, hospitals were overrun, emergency rooms were overrun. There's a correlation there. What we want to do is not have that repeat of what we saw in the month of August.

Mui: But I ask this because vaccine hesitancy has become so entrenched for some people, they are just worried. And so what do you say to a business or what should a business do if they have an employee who refuses to get vaccinated or refuses to get tested, they don't want to do either.

Secretary Walsh: They are going to have to get tested –

Mui: Do they get fired?

Secretary Walsh: They will have to get tested. And then as we're working through this rulemaking process, we will be looking at all those different situations. We're working with companies now. I believe there was a call today with businesses to listen to what their concerns were. I yesterday made calls before the President's press conference, I spoke to some business leaders in this country, most of them welcomed what I had to say. I talked to union leaders, we're going to talk to advocacy groups. So again, this is a process we're working through.

Mui: I want to shift gears a little bit and talk not just about the public health, but also the overall health in the labor market. Because the theme for this Capital Exchange event is on building a resilient workforce. And I feel like during this pandemic, we've all realized how quickly our jobs can change, how quickly the world around us can change. So what are some of the things that you guys can do to, as an agency, support workers and help them acquire the skills that they need to adapt when the environment is shifting so rapidly around them?

Secretary Walsh: I think the first thing is create a safe work environment in a workplace. And that's through vaccinations or intense testing. Making sure that when people come back to work, or people that are work, as new people come in, they're safe, and they feel safe, and they feel comfortable. Number one. Number two, I think as school reopens, getting young people back to school to allow parents the opportunity to go back into the workforce. A lot of parents were concerned about their health and concerned about childcare. I think that's the second component. I think that we need to think about what's going on in the country with the amount of jobs that are open, and people looking for jobs, and haven't gone back into the workforce. I think a lot of people have taken this last 19 months, quite honestly, and assess where they are in their career, where they are in their life and thinking this might be the opportunity for a time for a job change. I think we all went through it at some point either during the pandemic. We were sitting here saying, you know, am I in the right role? Is Mayor of Boston – or do I want to do something else?

Mui: Soul searching.

Secretary Walsh: And I think that how the Department of Labor helps there really is by making investments in job training, workforce development, partnering with companies. Yesterday, I was at a program in New Jersey, in Philadelphia, actually. And we gave a WANTO grant. This is from the women's office, women's bureau. And I was talking to a nonprofit organization that partners women up with tech companies, and I was talking to a recruiter who works at tech companies and trying to bring people into the industry. And I'm thinking we need to do more partnering with tech companies, we need to do more partnering with emerging industries to say how do we create a program that allows you, company, to be able to pull off a workforce that we train through these different programs. So we're working on workforce development, job training. And we also have two pieces of legislation right now that are up on Capitol Hill that are really important legislation. One is the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And the other one is the build back better agenda and incorporated in the build back better agenda is billions of dollars for investments in job training. We need to continue to make sure that we're creating pathways for people in America to get good paying jobs.

Mui: Well, that's good that you brought that up, because we do have a question from one of our audience members for you. His name is Marc Bertrand from The Bertrand Education Group. And he wanted to know if the new infrastructure deal will mandate or encourage government initiated partnerships with small businesses at the state and local level in order to optimize labor growth. What are some of those partnerships that could potentially become reality if some of these bills get passed?

Secretary Walsh: All of them. I mean, Marc is absolutely right. It won't mandate it, but small business is such a big, strong part of our economy. And I would argue, in some cases, the backbone of our economy. So there's opportunities for us to partner with small businesses, whether it's on workforce development, apprenticeship, job training, and helping people get into those different industries. And I think, you know, Marc, I welcome you to reach out to me here at the Department of Labor so we can talk more about it. It's kind of the story I just talked about in Philadelphia yesterday where this program, this nonprofit was connecting – through an agency connecting women to tech jobs. And so we have to make sure this investment, this infrastructure investment, whether it's the cares economy, or the physical infrastructure, this can't just benefit big corporations in America. It’s got to benefit small corporations, small companies in America, because they're the folks that employ the most Americans.

Mui: What do you think, though, is the reason why so many businesses are saying they can't find enough workers, even as workers are saying, you know, we are looking for the skills that we need in order to take the jobs that are available? Do you think that we have an issue in this country where workers simply aren't trained to do the jobs that are open? Or are businesses overlooking workers that maybe they should be hiring?

Secretary Walsh: I think a big part of it is we're living in a very interesting time right now with the pandemic. And I think the pandemic has reached a lot of, you know, uncertainty and a lot of different areas. You know, the beginning of this conversation, we started talking about, you know, whether or not people should be vaccinated and people that don't want to get vaccinated, they don't want to get tested. You know, there's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear. And I think as we continue to move forward, as we continue to hopefully be able to get the virus, the Delta variant numbers down, I think they're down today. If we can continue to open up our economy, I think things will come a little more into focus. I think we have to be more intentional about the work we do. I think the Department of Labor – that's why at the Department of Labor I'm working with the Department of Commerce, Secretary Raimondo and Secretary Cardona in Education, really creating better pathways. We're talking to each other. We're saying okay, how do we bring the industries together, how do we bring the people together. So we have to be real intentional about moving forward here.

Mui: What do you think are the top skills that employees, workers need in order to succeed in the current economy?

Secretary Walsh: It's hard to answer that question because our economy is so diverse. And our industry is so diverse. So I think that, again, I think that in the past, we would put money into job training into a program, and there was no real – there was some benefit, and people got jobs, but I think we have to be more focused on the investments we are making in job training, and more focus on making sure that we're giving the people the tools that they need to succeed in the industries that need the people today.

Mui: You talked about the billions of dollars that could go towards some of these programs in the bills that are winding through Congress right now. But businesses are concerned that to pay for some of these programs, they're going to have to be the ones bearing the brunt of higher taxes on the companies themselves, on their shareholders, on their investors. So how do you balance that when businesses are worried that they're going to be the ones funding all of these initiatives?

Secretary Walsh: Well, it’s kind of funny. You know, businesses can't say to me, you can't make us do vaccine mandates and we want to open our economy, and you’re not letting our economy open. On the other hand, we don't want to make investments in job training. I actually feel that the majority of businesses in this country want the investment. And I think that if you have an educated workforce, if your workforce is a working industry, your business is going to do better. And I don't think like, again, I come out of my background has not been picking a side and sticking to the side. I am Secretary of Labor, but my business has been to –  my job has always been to bring people together and bring people to the table and make it work. And I think that the majority of business in the United States of America, we're making investments in job training, I think you'd be hard pressed to find businesses that say, oh, we don't want investments in people. Especially in today's economy when you have people out of work. So again, I think that we have to be a little more focused on the country. And I think we have to focus on the country and the success of our country. And as President Biden says, win the future. If we want to win the future, we need to make sure we create pathways for people to get into the middle class, we need to make sure we educate those folks to be able to get good paying jobs, we need to move forward. This isn't about, you know, corporations making or CEOs making all this money as much as they possibly can, and forgetting the rest of their workforce. We need to be a little more balanced here if we want to continue to win the future.

Mui: But it's not just investments in job training that these bills would fund. It's also, you know, a dramatic expansion of the social safety net, one of the biggest in generations, it’s –

Secretary Walsh: Childcare.

Mui: Childcare –

Secretary Walsh: Which is every half of your employees that work in your corporations have kids, so we need to make sure they have places for their kids to go. Probably a quarter or two, almost half of the people that work for companies have parents that are sick, they need a place for them to go. We need to make sure that we have good strong schools, we have to make sure we had good strong childcare, we have to make sure we have good strong programs. So again, in all the, I guess, boardrooms and CEOs, if they look around each other, they have kids, they have sick parents, they want to take care of their parents as well. So why can't we make sure that we're taking care of the American worker who makes us successful every day, make sure they have good strong support. That's what we should be doing.

Mui: But a lot of companies might say we're already offering these benefits, we are already taking care of our employees. Look at Amazon saying that it's going to start paying college tuition for some of it’s employees.

Secretary Walsh: That’s great, I’m glad they are.

Mui: So why should they have to pay twice?

Secretary Walsh: Because they're not paying twice. If they want to offer incentives to employees, that's great. But also, there are other employees in their companies, they don't have childcare across the board. They don't have daycare – not daycare, they don't have, you know, programs for the sick parents and grandparents and people like that. They don't have the – some companies have those programs. You know, I was talking to some companies not too long ago that had paid family leave, medical leave. And they were talking about the importance of that, and that there was no abuse there. And it was actually able to retain people and recruit people to come work for the company. We need more companies that think about the employee, and how do we make sure the employee has the protections they need. Part of the reason why people aren't coming back to work today is because they're the primary caretaker in their home. They're taking care of a sick parent, they're taking care of a sick grandparent, they have no place for their kids to go, they're worried about their own their health. So again, we should really take some lessons from what we're seeing in the workforce today, and why people might not be coming back to work and how do we fix that so we don't have this situation down the road.

Mui: One of the concerns that businesses have had, particularly over the summer for why people weren't going back to the labor force was because of the enhanced unemployment benefits. You oversee the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you have all of the data right at your fingertips. Now that the benefits have expired across the country, what are you seeing in terms of the impact on the labor force participation rates? Are you seeing any change or any difference?

Secretary Walsh: Well we won’t know yet, because it's only been four days. So I don't have those numbers right now. But if you look at the states in the country, there were 22 I believe that stopped the benefit about a month ago, the $300. There was zero impact in getting more people into the workforce in those states. At least the initial data we looked at. Now we'll continue to look at that data and dissect that data. So I honestly don't feel, personally, that the super majority of people that were on unemployment, extended benefits weren't coming back to work because they get an extra $300. I think the real reasons why people weren't coming back to work, I think there's three of them. I think the first one is fear of their health. The second one is lack of childcare. And the third one is they're looking at do they want to go back to the job they were in. Are they happy where they are, and they're going to reassess where they are in their career and people are doing that today. That's why it's so important that the Department of Labor, and the Commerce Department and the Education Department and a bunch of us step into that role to help educate and job train people for jobs that they might want to do now.

Mui: The pandemic has had an unequal effect on workers across the economy. There's a lot of discussion around how do we ensure that as the economy recovers, it's an inclusive recovery. So I want to ask you a question from another one of our viewers, Rodney Jones, he's the owner of Complete Maintenance Services. He says, are there strategies in place to implement programs to reach and engage the Black and brown community so that they're not left out again in coming opportunities?

Secretary Walsh: We absolutely have to, there's no question about it. I mean, we think about the pandemic from day one. The Black community, African American community, was disproportionately impacted by higher rates of COVID. The Latino community was the second most impacted. As the pandemic went on, those numbers switch back and forth, it was either Latino infection led it or Black infection led it. So that was a problem. So we had disparities in the very beginning on health. We had disparities on the virus. We have an opportunity right now in our country, as I mentioned earlier, the two bills at Capitol Hill, which I keep pointing behind me because if you can't see on TV, it's over my left shoulder. There's two bills going on there that are making investments. Equity is at the center of those bills. We have made major investment in the past in this country, in infrastructure, we've made major investments in different parts, and always left behind are the communities of color. We can't allow that to happen. If we truly want to make sure that we have an equitable society, we have to make sure that all people are lifted by the investments we're making now. President Biden is laser focused on it. Vice President Harris is focused on it. I'm focused on it here at the Department of Labor. We need to not just say the words, we need to make sure it's different. Rodney’s 100% right. If we don't do it, in 10 years from now, you know, we pass these bills and we make investments and the African American community is still – unemployment rate is still double that of whites, and Latinos rate is still more than the white community. We failed the people.

Mui: So what can businesses do to help? You talked about discussing some of these policies with businesses, you talked about be a convener both now at the federal level, previously at state and local level. So where do you see businesses playing that role in a systemic way? Not just sort of these one off programs. How can businesses make a real difference?

Secretary Walsh: I think creating pathways in your companies. You know, give people opportunity. Be very cognizant of the diversity of your workforce. Making sure you're creating pathways and opportunities for people. Doing extensive outreach, reach out to the community, reach out to organizations. Give more people the opportunity to work in your companies. When I was the mayor, you know, we had great companies in Boston that sat at a table and really say, okay, we want to diversify. We want to make sure that we have women in leadership, we want to make sure we have women on corporate boards, we want to deal with pay equity. And we were working on all those issues. And you know, companies have to be intentional about that work. And if you're thinking, if you're out there watching this show, and you're like, I want to do that and I want to get involved. Again, call us. Call me and I'll work with you on how do we create those opportunities. Work with organizations like the NAACP, work with organizations like the Urban League. Reaching out, create pathways into employment. And when you have people in your company, help them on a trajectory to get promotions and move through your organization.

Mui: How long do you think it'll take for us to get back to full employment?

Secretary Walsh: I'm hoping, you know, I don't want to give a number because I think a lot of people were hoping by now we'd be beyond the pandemic. But I think it'll be probably into next year at some point where we feel like that the pandemic is kind of in the rearview mirror. I think a lot of people felt in the months of you know, April, May, June, that we were making great progress and we really were. And the Delta variant has kind of just wreaked havoc on a lot of different areas, particularly we if you look where the Delta variant numbers were the highest, they were in areas that the vaccine numbers were low. That’s, you know, that's not by accident. So again, it's about how do we continue to battle through. The American people are resilient. American people have done a lot of incredible work this year, for the last 19 months living with a pandemic. Many of them lost loved ones and my heart goes out to you. Many people took care of their personal health, many people watch what's going on. We're resilient people, we need to continue to stay together, we need to stop being divided. And we need to get this virus behind us.

Mui: A lot of companies have pushed back their date for when employees should return to the office if their employees have been so fortunate to be able to work from home. You guys at the Department of Labor have also pushed back your date for when –

Secretary Walsh: We had to unfortunately.

Mui: Yeah, for when employees are coming back. So what do you see the future of the workplace looking like? When people do come back, what is that going to be like? Are you allowing people to be remote?

Secretary Walsh: Well, I think that people need to realize we had a goal I think for September – actually, Monday, Tuesday we were going to bring people back to work here at DoL at a percentage point and then some more in October and November and December I think it was. And we had to push it back. I mean, so the Delta variant, the Coronavirus, changed all that. And it literally changed what people feel like overnight – from the month of July to the month of August. So when we talk about an executive order, ETS, to have mandated vaccines, we shouldn't be picking sides on that one. It's about opening the economy. The President wants to make sure the economy is open. The President wants to make sure we get people back into the workforce. That's what keeps our companies moving forward. I think about this building here where we're sitting right now. I mean, I have not worked in a full building as Secretary of Labor. I've only met a handful of my people in person. There are restaurants and coffee shops around here that are closed because there's nobody working in this building. There's a cafeteria in this building that used to employ people that would serve food that hasn't been opened in 19 months. The people that worked in those facilities, they don't have another option. So I think that we have to do everything we can to make sure we continue to get businesses open. So we just have to continue to push back on the variant and do everything we can to get beyond where we are.

Mui: Secretary, I can tell you that cafeteria had a very excellent egg sandwich.

Secretary Walsh: I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen it yet.

Mui: Highly recommend it. I hope they get back in person soon. Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

Secretary Walsh: Thank you.

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