As the secretary of labor, Tom Perez spends a lot of his time explaining workers’ rights. Yet when he talks one-on-one with workers of all kinds, he’s noticed that many of them still aren’t aware of the legal protections they have.
Whether it’s the right to overtime pay when they toil more than 40 hours in a week or the right to take unpaid time off after having a child, “they don’t know what they don’t know,” as Perez put it to The Huffington Post.
The White House is hoping to change that. On Friday, the Obama administration unveiled a new government website, worker.gov, that’s meant to help people understand their rights under the hodgepodge of U.S. workplace laws that are enforced by a range of agencies.
Unlike the typical federal website ― which tries, and often fails, to put complicated statutes into plain English (and Spanish) ― the new site begins with the worker. If you visit the site, you’ll be asked to identify your job and perhaps your problem on the job. The site will then tell you how different laws apply to your situation and how regulators might be able to help if a law is being broken.
In other words, you won’t have to know that a certain law exists to learn about its protections.
“If you’re a low-wage worker, you shouldn’t have to know what the Fair Labor Standards Act is,” said Perez, referring to the law that guarantees a minimum wage. “You should be able to go to one stop, type in what you do for a living, and it’ll give you a primer on what your rights are and where you can file a complaint.”
Perez concedes that a new website won’t move the needle much when it comes to improving wages and working conditions in the U.S. But he sees it as part of a broader White House effort to boost employees’ bargaining power in piecemeal ways ― given the lack of cooperation from a Republican-controlled Congress.
President Barack Obama was criticized by many labor leaders for sitting back early in his presidency. But over the past few years, he has let loose a flurry of executive actions related to the workplace. These include directives to expand overtime protections to millions of salaried workers, finalize safety regulations that were decades in the making, and force federal contractors to pay higher wages and offer better benefits to low-wage workers. Republicans opposed all those maneuvers, but weren’t able to stop them because they were carried out through executive power.
The White House has also tried to augment its more ambitious moves with smaller improvements. For instance, the administration was unable to get a bill through Congress guaranteeing paid family leave for workers, so the Labor Department doled out grants to states and cities to explore the costs of local paid-leave programs. The grants are modest ― the District of Columbia received one for $96,000 ― but they can help spur actual legislation. D.C.’s city council and mayor are now haggling over the details of a paid-leave proposal, and a new law could arrive as soon as next year.
Perez argues that this adds up to more than just nibbling around the edges ― although he acknowledges there’s no substitute for passing federal laws the president can sign.
“There are a lot of singles and doubles being hit,” Perez said. “I think we’re making progress in very real ways.”
A year ago, the administration hosted a summit titled “Worker Voice,” bringing together labor unions, nonprofits and corporate executives to discuss stagnant wages and other problems facing workers in the modern economy. Since then, it has hosted similar regional summits in places like Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York and D.C.
According to the White House, feedback from those events went into the creation of the Worker.gov site, which was developed with the help of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The site draws material from the Justice Department, the Labor Department, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the National Labor Relations Board. Officials said they expect some kinks and want feedback from users. (HuffPost, like everyone else, recalls the disastrous Healthcare.gov rollout, and we haven’t played around with Worker.gov enough to vouch for its usability.)
Perez said hopes for the new site are straightforward: If you’ve had wages withheld unfairly, if you’ve been hurt or discriminated against on the job, or if your right to unionize has been trampled on, Worker.gov will show you where you can find help.
The current version of the site, which is still in beta testing, focuses on a few particular types of workers: office employees, day laborers, and workers in restaurants and nail salons. But the White House plans to expand the site to include jobs of all kinds.
“It’s been exciting to see workers around the country starting to understand that they do have control over their lives and jobs,” Perez said, “but there’s a lot of work to be done.”