WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh was testifying before Congress on Wednesday for the first time since his confirmation and things got weird quickly.
First, there was the standard pandemic-era strangeness. Walsh beamed into the virtual hearing by the House appropriations subcommittee from Labor Department headquarters while lawmakers did the same from their homes or offices.
Then, the panel’s top Republican, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, aware of the former Boston mayor’s Irish heritage but not that he’s a recovering alcoholic, sought to break the ice by joking that “if you like Guinness, Irish cream ale, or Irish whiskey, we’ll have a working basis for a relationship.”
And finally, about two minutes into Walsh’s opening statement, just as he was about to make his pitch for President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, the livestream of the hearing on C-SPAN’s website froze. When the signal was still frozen after several minutes, the cable network ditched its coverage.
Getting started as a Cabinet secretary is challenging enough in normal times, particularly for a lifelong Bostonian like Walsh who’s never worked in Washington. As two events this week showed, the former mayor is still learning the complexities of the federal bureaucracy and the power of his own statements, even as he begins selling the administration’s infrastructure bill and weighing complex economic decisions that fall to him in his new role.
Add the limitations of the pandemic, and the transition becomes even tougher.
“It’s hard to build a team when you’re on Zoom,” Walsh said in an interview. “I was mayor for six years and then the pandemic hit, so we had already built a team. We had already created energy. We knew each other.”
“Here, I know people by their screen face on Zoom or on Microsoft Teams,” he continued. “I’m starting to meet people slowly. It’s harder because sometimes you need that time in a room just to go back and forth for an hour about stuff and to get to know each other.”
Cole’s awkward comment might not have happened if they had met in person before the hearing. (A Cole spokesperson said he and Walsh talked afterward and there were no hard feelings.) Walsh also hasn’t met with the subcommittee chairwoman, Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. She said in an interview later that she already knew of Walsh’s achievements as Boston mayor and they would be in touch by phone.
One relationship Walsh doesn’t have to worry about is his one with Biden. The two are longtime friends, and Walsh has visited him in the Oval Office twice since arriving in Washington.
“If I need to talk to the president, I can talk to the president. If I need to talk to the chief of staff, I can talk to the chief of staff,” Walsh said. “It’s a very collaborative administration and everyone’s there to support each other.”
Newcomers to Washington can use the support. Although Walsh has run a major city, that doesn’t fully prepare him for leading a federal agency, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that works to make the federal government more effective.
“There’s nothing you can really do in the private sector, or even in other levels of government, that equips you to hit the ground running in these jobs. They’re just immense,” he said. “He’s a very capable individual. He’ll get it all eventually. The question is, can he get it real fast because he doesn’t have time to waste.”
Since being sworn in on March 23, Walsh said, he spends weekdays in Washington, working out of the nearly empty Labor Department building near the US Capitol and flies back to Boston for the weekends. He’s the first former union leader to head the agency in decades and said his priorities include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, providing workers paid family leave, expanding the ability of workers to join unions, and ensuring worksites are safe.
“Ultimately, our job here is to represent the American worker,” Walsh said.
On top of getting acclimated at the Labor Department, which has 16,000 employees, he has a temporary new task. Walsh is part of a team of five Cabinet secretaries assigned by Biden to sell his sweeping infrastructure proposal on Capitol Hill and around the country. That’s a tall order given Democrats’ narrow congressional majorities and COVID concerns about travel and large gatherings.
The restrictions haven’t so much complicated the sales effort as made it different, Walsh said. His dozens of meetings to pitch the bill so far, including with members of Congress, have all been virtual.
“I’ve talked to mayors, I’ve talked to some governors, I’ve talked to business leaders, I’ve talked to advocacy groups,” he said. “It’s important that we try to talk to as many people as possible.”
Last week, Walsh joined a virtual forum hosted by the National League of Cities and answered questions from local elected officials nationwide about the proposal.
“I was one of you until about a month ago, and as they say, once a mayor, always a mayor,” Walsh told the audience.
Kathy Maness, the organization’s president, said improving infrastructure is crucial, and a former mayor like Walsh makes a great salesman for the administration’s plan.
“It’s encouraging to know that somebody who is leading the effort to help get this legislation passed knows what it’s like when your roads are crumbling,” she said. “He can actually talk the talk, and that’s important.”
But learning to talk the talk as a Cabinet secretary is still a work in progress.
This week, Walsh learned his words can carry more power than they did as Boston mayor. In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Walsh said that “in a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees” and not independent contractors. The story, which at first incorrectly said that Walsh was talking about “most gig workers,” caused a steep drop in shares of gig economy giants Uber, Lfyt, and DoorDash because the Labor Department sets rules for classifying workers.
A move by Walsh to change the rules could cut into the profits of those companies and add new benefits, like overtime and sick pay, for millions of gig economy workers. A Labor Department spokesperson downplayed Walsh’s comments, saying that he simply “was reiterating that misclassification is a pervasive issue that impacts both the economy and workers.”
Walsh is also already facing political pressure to speed up key decisions that could have big consequences for the economy — a challenge given the slow wheels of the federal bureaucracy.
Before Walsh was confirmed, Biden had set a March 15 deadline for the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to consider whether new nationwide rules are needed to safeguard workers from COVID and, if so, to issue them. The Trump administration had declined to enact such measures, which could require employers to provide workers with high-quality masks and other protections or risk heavy fines. Once confirmed, Walsh paused the process to review it and consult with the Centers for Disease Control about the state of the pandemic.
“We worked very closely with the CDC and now we came up with recommendations,” he said.
Those recommendations, which he declined to detail, were sent to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA, on Monday as part of the formal review process. DeLauro pressed Walsh at Wednesday’s hearing on the need for the OSHA rules — known as an emergency temporary standard, or ETS — particularly in the meatpacking industry.
“I have to be honest with you, Secretary Walsh, I’m disappointed that the administration has yet to finalize that OSHA ETS to protect these workers,” she said. Walsh told her that the proposal was at the White House and he couldn’t say when the review would be finished.
Then DeLauro delivered another lesson for him about how Washington and its alphabet soup of agencies work.
“Things can languish forever at OIRA,’' she said, “and we don’t have forever.”