For many in Arkansas, and across the country, Labor Day symbolizes the end of summer, back-to-school sales and a fun three-day weekend. But it’s more than that for me.
This is my fourth Labor Day as the nation’s labor secretary and the U.S. Department of Labor’s 99th. I’ve come to realize that, throughout the history of this federal agency, Labor Day is and always will be every day.
Nationwide and, in Arkansas, the department touches families and lives from infancy to retirement. We ensure that working parents can care for newborns under the Family and Medical Leave Act. We’re also the folks who protect your pensions. Health and safety in the workplace? That’s us. A paycheck that just doesn’t add up? We are your first call. Job training after a layoff, protecting civilian jobs for service members returning stateside, guarding against discrimination at companies that do work for the federal government? That’s us, too.
We operate your Cass, Little Rock and Ouachita Job Corps centers in Ozark, Little Rock and Royal respectively, along with 120 others across the country; making us one of the largest providers of education and training for at-risk youth.
For decades, our employees, including nearly 50 in Arkansas, have worked behind the scenes, as coal mine and gravel pit inspectors, statisticians, benefit advisors, workers’ compensation clerks and policy planners.
And in so many instances, we’ve been ahead of the times.
When world conflicts heated up, the Labor Department ensured war-time production of battleships ahead of schedule. And in the 1920s, long before there was a Civil Rights Movement or something called "the glass ceiling," our Women’s Bureau — the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women — investigated and reported on the status of female African-American workers.
Speaking of glass ceilings: The first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet was Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. She was the mastermind behind much of President Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal" during the Great Depression. She wrote the Social Security Act, created Unemployment Insurance, legalized a minimum wage and overtime protections and wove the nation’s social safety net on which millions of workers still rely.
Today, our work is even more critical, and more evident in Arkansas. In the past year alone, we have recovered more than $4.1 million in back wages for more than 5,500 workers in the state and our actions achieved more than $3 million for nearly 1,300 people in employee benefit plans, such as 401(k)s. That’s money they rightfully earned, but were denied. And that’s money that goes right back into the Arkansas economy. And, while there is still work to be done, unemployment in Arkansas has dropped to 7.3 percent, almost a full percentage point since last year.
Since 1882, when it was first celebrated in New York City, and 1894, when it became a federal holiday, the first Monday in September has been set aside to honor and celebrate the American worker. We call it Labor Day, and its message is simple: The great American worker is what makes America great.