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Jobs up but US has unfinished business: Labor secretary

Just a week before Labor Day, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez cited the "resilience" of the American worker and economic growth but also referred to "unfinished business" in the job recovery.

"We have the wind at our back, there's no doubt about it." Perez told CNBC in an interview with "On the Money." As proof, Perez pointed to "Sixty-five months in a row of private sector job growth," that has added "13 million jobs" to the economy.

"There are 5.2 million job openings right now; that's a bellwether of a very well-functioning economy, he said. "In the depths of the recession there were roughly seven job seekers for every job opening. Now there are 1.6 job seekers."

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While citing positive job figures, the labor secretary also said "at the same time, the unfinished business is undeniable."

Despite the relative improvement of the job market, critics point to a declining labor participation rates, which currently hover around levels not seen in nearly 40 years. Other critics point to the quality of available jobs, with the manufacturing sector having lost more than a million jobs since the great recession. Simultaneously, generally lower-paying positions in food, retail and temporary work have soared.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez
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Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez

Against that backdrop, the labor secretary underscored how working class families are still struggling with wages that aren't keeping up with the cost of living.

Recently, Perez was on tour visiting workers in several states, including Oregon, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.

He recounted a meeting he had with fast food workers, including a mother who worked 30 hours a week but "the night before I saw her, she slept in a car with her three children. We can do better as a nation," he said.

While in Oregon, Perez touted the state's recently passed paid sick leave law, which allows workers up to five days of paid leave at companies with 10 or more employees. Oregon is the fourth state to pass a paid sick leave law, joining California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Businesses "recognize when workers are respected and taken care of, when you have this basic baseline of benefits, what it does is it helps to really bring about a loyal workforce and reduces attrition," Perez said. "And the unfinished business of this recovery is making sure that the wind that's at our back brings about more shared prosperity," he added.


President Barack Obama stands with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.
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President Barack Obama stands with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

Perez told CNBC there's "too many people who haven't got a raise in years and there's too many people working 50 hours a week and getting their food at the food pantry." Along those lines, about 46 million Americans receive more than $80 billion in food benefits, and Census Bureau data shows that the number of children receiving food stamps is higher than before the start of the Great Recession in 2007.

When asked what areas the new jobs are coming from, Perez told CNBC the "health-care sector continues to be a robust area of opportunity." He also mentioned the Department of Labor has seen "the most growth in the last year has been in business and professional services, which by-and-large are very good, middle-class jobs."

CNBC asked Perez about the impact of workers moving into the "gig economy," where workers are independent contractors instead of employees. For example, ride-sharing service Uber has hired 160,000 drivers in the U.S. However, Perez denounced the "false choices" he says the sector offers workers.

"I hear some people who say that, well, we either innovate or we regulate and the best way to help build the 'Ubers' of the world is to make sure that there's no regulation," he said. "That's just flat wrong. That's a false choice."

Perez pointed to Instacart, a grocery delivery start-up with 7,000 workers in 16 cities. Instacart recently reclassified some workers as employees. The company "recognize(s) if you want to build long-term growth, you've got to make sure you take care of your workers," he said.

Perez added: "I see workers and businesses alike coming together, understanding that when more people have more, we're a stronger nation."

—"On the Money" airs on CNBC Sundays at 7:30 p.m., or check listings for air times in local markets.