Thomas Perez won Senate confirmation to lead the U.S. Labor Department, where he has pledged to enforce laws on overtime pay and help the administration raise the federal minimum wage.
The Senate voted 54-46 today, putting him on track to be sworn in as the nation’s top labor-law enforcer this week to run a department with about 17,000 employees. Perez will play a prominent role in pushing President Barack Obama’s agenda on issues including rewriting immigration law and raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25.
Perez, 51, was Maryland’s labor secretary from 2007 to 2009. His work as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division sparked a backlash from Republicans over the nomination. Perez was confirmed without any Republican votes.
The child of Dominican immigrants, he is the only Hispanic named to Obama’s second-term cabinet so far.
In a statement released by the White House, Obama said “Tom has lived the American dream himself, and has dedicated his career to keeping it within reach for hardworking families across the country.”
The Senate moved to confirm Perez and other stalled Obama nominees after legislative leaders resolved a dispute that included a threat by Democrats to strip the minority party’s right to stage a filibuster and block executive-branch nominees. A bipartisan deal reached July 16 allowed votes on presidential picks including Perez and Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
The Senate also this week may confirm Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and later this month will vote on five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.
Perez said his top goal at the Labor Department would be to focus on creating U.S. jobs, and pledged tough enforcement of wage and hour laws. The department may deal with an issue in which companies classify workers as contractors to avoid paying overtime, John Thompson, an attorney in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips, said in an interview.
“I would anticipate that he certainly will not cut back on enforcement in that area, and might well increase the labor department’s attention to such things,” Thompson said.
At a Senate hearing in April to outline his agenda, Republicans criticized Perez for what they say are ideological decisions he made as head of the civil rights division. They questioned his decision to keep the Justice Department out of two whistle-blower lawsuits against the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was part of a deal where the city dropped an unrelated Supreme Court case that risked undermining a Justice Department enforcement tool in housing discrimination cases.
Republicans led by Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Charles Grassley of Iowa said Perez’s deal was a “quid pro quo” arrangement that was unfair to whistle-blowers and cost taxpayers as much as $200 million had the two cases succeeded. In the Republican-led House, the Government Reform and Oversight Committee investigated the he matter.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Democratic chairman of the Senate’s labor and health committee, said Perez did nothing unethical. Perez testified that he consulted with Justice Department ethics officials and followed their advice before continuing talks with St. Paul. Perez also said officials in the civil division told him the whistle-blower case was weak.
“From our standpoint, Perez would be no worse than the rest,” Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute, a business owners group, said in an interview. “Anyone who was going to be President Obama’s labor secretary is going to be extraordinarily pro union, so it might as well be him.”
Perez will replace Hilda Solis, who left in January.