'Tom Perez has guts': US labor secretary being eyed as Clinton's running mate

Perez has spent his years at the helm of the labor department fighting for paid leave, overtime pay and visiting workers on the ground – and he’s not done yet

It’s been a busy week for the US labor secretary, Tom Perez.

On Tuesday night, the White House announced that the Obama administration had finalized a new rule that could potentially expand overtime benefits to 4.2 million more Americans. On Wednesday morning, Perez boarded Air Force Two and with Vice-President Joe Biden and flew to Columbus, Ohio, where they made the official public announcement inside Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams .

The new rule has been described by some as second only to the Affordable Care Act in its ability to affect the wellbeing of working- and middle-class Americans. Perez, who has been at the head of the US Department of Labor for nearly three years, has made the overtime rule a priority even as he has toured the country speaking to workers and advocating for other worker-friendly policies such as higher minimum wages at the local, state and federal level.

Related: Millions could get a raise under Obama administration's new overtime rules

With two-thirds of a year left until the new president is sworn in, Perez still has an intimidating list of unfinished business – paid leave, auto-enrolling US workers into 401K or other pension programs and a higher minimum wage among others– that he’d like to accomplish. As the election nears, he may have even more on his plate: Perez is said to be a potential vice-presidential pick.

He is clearly unafraid of a challenge. Big business has come out swinging against his changes to paid leave. Perez is unfazed. “We are the only industrialized nation on the planet that does not have some form of paid leave. We are the only industrialized nation where paid leave is a partisan issue,” Perez said.

“I got in trouble recently because I said: ‘The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only nations on the planet that do not have some form of paid leave.’ Someone approached me after and said: ‘Hey, I am from Papua New Guinea and we have been taking an initiative. Stop dissing New Guinea.’ So I want to note my own error and apologize for dissing New Guinea. We are alone as a nation.”

A good listener

“Tom Perez has guts,” said Michael Subin, executive director of the Montgomery County’s criminal justice coordinating commission. “When he sees injustice, he is not afraid to take on those committing the injustice.”

Subin and Perez worked together in the early 2000s when Perez served as a member and then a president of the Montgomery County council. Together they proposed the Perez-Subin bill that sought to limit predatory lending. According to Subin, Perez knows how to get things done.

“Lot of legislators don’t understand what they have to do and how the system works best. He was able to get things done because he was able to work with people,” he said. “He understood what they were looking for, what their issues might have been regarding specific pieces of legislation. And he listened.”

Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU – one of the largest labor unions in the US – enjoys working with Perez because “he gets us”.

“You don’t have to explain struggles that people have. He is often telling me stories of people he has just met – about how they are stitching together two or three jobs to make ends meet and that we have to stop it. What are we going to do together to get things right? He has really been a privilege to work with.”

One morning early in May, Perez made his way to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood to visit UnCommonGoods, an online and catalogue retailer. In a small conference room, six workers sat awaiting his arrival. Most of them had started at UnCommonGoods as seasonal workers and have then transitioned into permanent positions, quickly climbing the ladder within the company. UnCommonGoods is what Perez would describe as a “conscious capitalism” company focused on developing its workers by paying them well, listening to their feedback and incorporating that into how the company is managed.

“I came here for the job, but I stayed for the culture,” said Joel Villa, an operations supervisor who started at the company in 2013. “ I can grow and learn here.”

As he toured the UnCommonGoods warehouse, Perez displayed an easy charm. Spotting one of the workers with a staff-designed handheld scanner, he said: “Can I see your gun for a minute?” As the employee handed it over, Perez looked it over and posed for photos. “It’s so elegant,” he said handing it back. “Show me what you’re doing here?”

Later that day, Perez would go on to visit the kitchen of The Modern – one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants with a no-tipping policy . He is as comfortable in a kitchen as he is in a warehouse, in a hard hat on a construction site or bending pipes in a garage. Making house calls, as he refers to his visits with employees and employers, is a key part of his job as a labor secretary and enables him to “understand the angst” of those Americans who still feel left behind in the economic recovery.

“People in this country are resilient. I’ve met so many folks who got kicked to the side of the road in the Great Recession and they’ve rebounded. They inspire me,” he said. “I also meet people who are trying their hardest and are working a full-time job and they are getting their food at a food pantry. I’ve met a woman in Detroit a few months ago – she joined the Fight for $15 movement, mother of three. The night before I met her, she slept in her car with her three kids. That’s not right. We can do better as a nation.”

Just days after his visit to Brooklyn, the Department of Labor released its April jobs report noting that the US economy added just 160,000 jobs , about 40,000 fewer than expected.

“It’s another solid report,” Perez told the Guardian that afternoon, pointing out that the number of long-term unemployed has been dropping amid optimism about the US job market. “The percentage of long-term unemployed is the lowest in seven years.”

With the unemployment rate reaching 5% – down from 10% in October 2009 – there are fewer workers on the market and employers are going to have to hire workers who “might have a 12-month hole on their résumé”.

“I’ve met these folks. They have incredible talent,” said Perez. “Their only mistake – if you want to call it a mistake – is that they were at a wrong place at a wrong time during the Great Recession.”

Related: The jobs doctor is in: US Labor secretary makes unemployment 'house calls'

On a cold, wet February morning, Perez met half a dozen New Jerseyans who were over 55 years old and had been out of work for an average of 1.8 years. The panel took place at Rutgers University, which had recently launched a “New Start Career Network” focusing on older, long-term unemployed workers .

“For them, it was hugely significant, the simple fact that the highest-ranking official in the country who deals with these issues took the time to talk to them about their experiences with long-term unemployment,” Maria Heidkamp, director of the network, told the Guardian. “It was very meaningful to them.”

In the nearly four months since they met Perez, one of the attendees got a one-year contract. Three others were able to find short-term work on a two- to three-month contract. “We are hoping that in couple of those cases it turns into something longer term,” said Heidkamp.

What’s next

While visiting long-term unemployed in New Jersey, Perez joked that with his history of working for a handful of employers in the public sector for longer periods of time, he “would have had trouble on the job hunt” in a modern market where staying with one employer is not always viewed favorably.

Jokes aside, his résumé is impressive. After becoming the first Latino elected to the Montgomery County council and later serving as its president, Perez ran for attorney general of Maryland in 2006. However, his campaign came to a stop after one of his rivals sued him alleging that he had not practiced law for 10 years and therefore did not meet the requirements to serve. That same year, Martin O’Malley was elected as the state’s governor and later appointed Perez to serve as the state’s labor secretary.

In October of 2009, Perez joined the US Justice Department’s civil rights division as assistant general attorney. While there he had investigated the death of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman in February 2012, abuse at police departments in cities such as Miami and Seattle and civil rights violations by anti-immigration sheriff Joe Arpaio. In the summer of 2013, he was tagged by Barack Obama to run the US Department of Labor.

To many of his supporters it comes as no surprise that since then, Perez’s name has been floated for a number of other posts. When Eric Holder stepped down as US attorney general, Mother Jones ran a piece headlined: “Why picking Tom Perez for attorney general would be a smart move for Obama”. Earlier this year when the supreme court justice Antonin Scalia died, Perez’s name came up in the pool of potential replacements .

The past few months have also seen speculation that Perez might end up as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Perez – who has at times joined Clinton on the campaign trail – insists he is focused on his day job.

“Every engagement that I have had with him, he knows the number of days left in the president’s term,” said Henry. “The thing I admire in him is that even though speculation is happening, he remains laser-focused on trying to implement the fair pay and safe workplaces executive orders that we worked for six years to come to light. He is completely indefatigable on making sure that anything on his plate gets his full attention before he ends the term.”

On Friday, while speaking to a room of journalists, Perez once again dodged a question about his possible vice-presidency. The comments came after he said mass deportation proposals floated by some Republicans “won’t happen” and added that he was confident the US government was going to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the next year.

“You can’t keep demonizing the largest growing population in America and think that that’s a good strategy for growth,” he said, pointing to the naturalization movement in immigrant communities. “Immigration reformation is long overdue.”

“Spoken like a vice-presidential nominee,” quipped Bernie Kohn of Bloomberg News.

“I have not been approached,” said Perez, dodging the question. “I like my day job. Actually, I love my day job, what I am doing every day. I have 245 days until the weekend. I have a little sign on my desk, not because I want to count the days but because I want to make all the days count.”

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