Westchester and Fairfield businesses, like their counterparts nationally, should prioritize finding and hiring employees in a highly competitive labor market, acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella told the Business Journal during an Aug. 8 interview.
“With a 3.7% unemployment rate it’s competitive out there to hire people,” he said. “For the last year there have been a million more job openings in the country than there are job seekers, so the challenge for business is to find, hire and retain employees they need to produce the goods and services so they can make a profit and create wealth and hire more people.”
Pizzella said what he hears most from business leaders is, “I’ve got to find more skilled workers.”
He continued, “At the Department of Labor (DOL), we have a big initiative in the apprenticeship area and apprenticeships have become quite popular again. We have an Office of Apprenticeship here and we actually have a proposed rule out to make apprenticeships easier to establish in different industries.”
Pizzella said the apprenticeship idea “works out pretty well” for the department because “we have a president who used to be on a TV show with the word apprenticeship.”
Pizzella had been serving as deputy secretary of labor under Secretary Alex Acosta beginning April 17, 2018. On July 12, 2019, after Acosta was forced to resign in a scandal over his handling of the sex crimes case against the now deceased wealthy businessman Jeffrey Epstein when Acosta was a U.S. attorney in southern Florida, President Trump named Pizzella to serve as acting secretary of labor. He will hold the position until a new secretary is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in. Trump has said he wants Eugene Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, confirmed to the post.
“Gene and I are friends,” Pizzella said. “We actually both worked here under Secretary (Elaine) Chao. I was here from 2001 to 2009 under Secretary Chao. Gene was here from 2001 to 2003.”
Pizzella held the post of assistant secretary of labor for administration and management at that time.
Pizzella is a New Rochelle native whose career path has resulted in roles in and out of government. He ran his own consulting firm, Patrick Pizzella LLC, and worked at the law firm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP. In government, he held posts at the U.S. Small Business Administration, the U.S. General Services Administration, U.S. Office of Personnel Management and U.S. Department of Education among other agencies.
He served as the Republican member of the Federal Labor Relations Authority after being nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate. He was named acting chairman of that agency under the Trump administration.
Pizzella’s employment history began in New Rochelle.
“My first job was as a newspaper delivery boy for The Standard Star, which used to be in New Rochelle,” he said. “That was in 1966. I was 12 years old.”
Among his other jobs while growing up were stints at the IBM Watson Research Center in Yorktown and the Westchester Hills Country Club.
“When I was in high school at Iona Prep, I used to report on the Iona Prep football and basketball games. They would run my stories in The Standard Star,” he said.
Pizzella recalled that after World War II until about 1963 his father ran a store on Main Street in New Rochelle called The London Shop and his father and mother were quite active in the Elks and Lions clubs.
“I actually went to Beechmont Nursery School at the end of Pinebrook Boulevard and then, when I was in Iona Prep, started going to the Beechmont Bar and Grill around the corner,” Pizzella said with an enthusiastic laugh.
He also was upbeat when talking about more serious things, such as recent unemployment rates. The department’s job statistics have been known to move stock markets Pizzella told the Business Journal, “This Labor Day will be the lowest unemployment rate for a Labor Day since 1969 and we’ve had 17 straight months with the unemployment rate at 4% or below and we have, of course, the most Americans working at any time in our history at 157 million.”
Critics of the Trump administration, including some in labor unions, have been concerned that the Department of Labor’s worker protection regulations are being gutted at the same time oversight of businesses is being scaled back.
“We’re focused on protecting workers, making sure that they’re getting the wages they’re entitled to, doing our best to safeguard their retirement savings,” Pizzella said. “In the same breath we’re, of course, constantly trying to ensure we don’t hinder those folks out there who are trying to grow the economy and hire more people to work and create more wealth for everybody.”
Pizzella noted that the department’s Wage Analysis Division, which oversees minimum wage and fair labor standards, last year collected $304 million in back wages owed to American workers, which was the largest amount collected in the division’s 80-year history.
Pizzella pointed to a DOL rule published a couple of weeks ago that expands availability of 401(k) retirement plans by allowing professionals and businesses with common interests to form associations for the purpose of creating those plans. Pizzella said this will open up 401(k) plans to an additional 38 million Americans.
Pizzella said the DOL has been taking an interest in trade negotiations.
“What we try to do as best we can is to be sure that trade agreements have an aspect that looks out for the American worker,” he said. “The big thing in front of us now is the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which should be of some interest to readers in Westchester. I think if you talk to almost anybody in the business community they’ll tell you they’re anxious for it because it should create a better flow of goods between our three countries and most workers will see and recognize that the USMCA has some of the best labor protections of any labor agreement that’s ever been negotiated.”
USMCA replaces NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Regarding the trade war with China, Pizzella said he’s optimistic that “things will be worked out.”
The DOL has about 14,000 people on its payroll with a budget of about $12 billion, according to Pizzella.
“In the last two years, the Department of Labor is one of the few departments that had its budget reduced,” he said. “I’ve been in and out of government since I came to town with Ronald Reagan in 1981, but I very much enjoy the various positions I’ve had in government. You know, on the outside there are different freedoms and different responsibilities, but I very much enjoy and take seriously the position of public trust like this that any president nominates you for,” Pizzella told the Business Journal.