Seth Harris’s Legacy: Lives Saved, Wages Restored, Pensions Secured, and a More Effective U.S. Department of Labor

The Deputy Secretary of Labor for the last five years is not well known outside his agency (deputy secretaries are never well known, they’re supposed to avoid the limelight), but his record—the Department’s record of achievement during his tenure—deserves to be known and praised by every American who cares about justice and an economy that delivers shared prosperity. Seth D. Harris was appointed by President Obama in 2009, but he had already spent eight years at the Department as an aide and counselor to Secretary Robert Reich and as an Assistant Secretary under Secretary Alexis Herman. As Secretary of Labor Tom Perez said yesterday, no official since Frances Perkins in the 1930s has understood every aspect of the agency’s mission as thoroughly as Seth Harris, and the agency was much smaller then! It’s unlikely that anyone so knowledgeable will ever serve at the Department of Labor (DOL) again.

When Harris and Secretary Hilda Solis took office in 2009, the Department of Labor was a demoralized agency with poor operating systems and a disappointing record of declining enforcement and regulations that undermined the agency’s mission in important ways. With Secretary Solis’s support, Deputy Secretary Harris, as chief operating officer of the department, completely turned things around.

What did the Labor Department accomplish under Seth Harris’s leadership? Even a partial list is impressive:

  1. Workplace Safety: Last year, DOL achieved the lowest workplace fatality rate for miners, the fewest number of miners dying in workplace accidents, and the fewest workplace injuries in mines, ever.  Over the last five years, DOL twice achieved the lowest rate of fatalities in general industry, ever, including last year.  And over the last five years, DOL achieved the lowest fatality rate in the construction industry, ever. Black lung, a disease that cripples and kills miners, will become much, much rarer under a new rule DOL proposed.  Hundreds of deaths and thousands of morbid illnesses will be prevented each year under a new rule DOL proposed to protect workers from exposure to silica.
  2. Protecting whistleblowers: Last year, DOL conducted the largest number of whistleblower investigations, ever.  Last year, DOL helped more miners who suffered retaliation from their employers for raising health and safety concerns than were helped in the entire second term of the Bush Administration or the entire second term of the Clinton Administration.
  3. Fighting wage theft: Over the past 5 years, DOL returned more than $1.1 billion in wages to the workers from whom they had been stolen.  DOL conducted the largest number of directed Davis-Bacon investigations, ever.  And DOL did the best job, ever, of targeting its wage and hour investigations to the workplaces that had violations, even when the workers felt too threatened and too disempowered to complain.  DOL also expanded minimum wage and overtime protections to nearly 2 million home health aides.  The people who care for us when we need them most will now get the most basic of worker protections.
  4. Retirement and Benefit Security: During the past five years, DOL recovered more than $1.3 billion in pension and health plan benefits for more than 710,000 participants and beneficiaries through informal resolutions.  DOL promulgated almost two dozen rules along with Treasury and HHS to implement the President’s historic health care law.
  5. Helping disabled workers: Last year, DOL helped the highest percentage of federal employees with disabilities on workers compensation to return to work since it started keeping records on this activity.  DOL also processed workers compensation claims for longshore workers and energy employees at the fastest clip, ever.
  6. DOL vastly improved its financial performance: DOL had five consecutive years of clean financial audits, and these last two years, had no material deficiencies in its financial audit.  Harris replaced a 25-year-old financial management system that put DOL out of compliance with just about every law with a new cloud-based financial management system that helps DOL comply with every law, and balance our books, and spend the taxpayers’ money responsibly.
  7.  Last year, DOL did the best job, ever, of paying its bills on time, and paid the smallest amount of interest for late payments, ever.  DOL paid small business contractors faster than ever and did the highest percentage of its contracting with small businesses in its history.

In his retirement speech yesterday, Harris described what drove him and the Department’s staff, whom he described as “17,000 patriots,” to accomplish so much over the past five years:

“Our motivation has been simple.  We believe the work of the U.S. Department of Labor matters.  Doing our jobs well matters to working families.  It matters to our economy.  It matters for our future.  That’s why the Labor Department’s performance has gotten better every year, and we have gotten better at getting better every year.”

Harris leaves the agency in excellent hands. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez brings amazing passion, energy, and commitment to the Department’s missions of protecting worker health and safety, ensuring fair pay and retirement security, fighting discrimination, and helping the unemployed. The last five years’ achievements should be the foundation for many more.