Mark_Zelden

Mark Zelden.

Americans gathered with family and friends this Labor Day for the traditional end of summer amid a strong national economy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports have shown job growth each month has been robust this year, wage growth for workers continues to rise and weekly unemployment claims remain at near 50-year lows. However, there are times when unexpected natural disasters occur; we know this all too well in Louisiana. The U.S. Labor Department is a partner with federal, state, local governments and faith-based stakeholders in these times to remind us all about the importance of the dignity of work to Americans recovering from a natural disaster.

When natural disasters take place, the front lines are heavily populated by faith-based organizations and their members. We saw this up close with the serious flooding in August of 2016 in south Louisiana. Local churches stepped in immediately to assist neighbors as the flood waters suddenly and dramatically rose. In 2019, whether it be springtime tornado outbreaks in the Southeast, flooding in the Midwest, or wildfires in the West, when tragedy hits, churches and other faith-based organizations are always there to assist their neighbors in crisis.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is on the front-lines as natural disasters occur, but when the process moves to recovery and rebuilding, the Department of Labor is a key agency. Programs like the National Dislocated Worker Grants from the department's Employment and Training Administration are a vital source of funds for state governments working to rebuild local workforces.

In recent months, ETA has awarded such grants to West Virginia to recover from severe storms, to North Carolina, Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico as they rebuild from various hurricanes, to California and Washington as they recover from severe forest fires, and to Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri as they rebuild from massive spring flooding. The images from television of church congregations providing cooked meals, clothing, and temporary shelter are a clear reminder that the immediate aftermath of natural disasters brings out the best in all of us. These groups are indispensable partners with state and local government first responders.

We know in Louisiana that once the national media cameras focus their efforts on the next big story, the rebuilding efforts do not end. The process to repair lives starts with housing but quickly pivots to employment and jobs. Churches and other faith-based organizations are often the best sources of information about the status of local communities and neighborhoods.

The Department of Labor seeks to engage the abilities of these groups to ensure the swiftest rebuilding of the local workforce consistent with an executive order signed by President Donald Trump last year. The order established the White House Initiative on Faith and Opportunity and directed each department or agency to have a Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives. This nation was founded by people of faith searching for opportunity, and we in the federal government should work with local faith-based organizations to better serve people in need.

As the director of the Center for faith and Opportunity Initiatives at the Department of Labor, I have had the opportunity see firsthand areas negatively impacted by natural disasters. Working with state workforce commissions to direct Labor Department programs that get people trained after of disasters strike has demonstrated the vital role that churches and faith-based organizations play in the rebuilding. My department and others have funding provided by the Congress, but often need the expertise and social capital of local groups on the ground. This increases the likelihood resources are targeted more effectively to those in need.

We are in the peak of hurricane season, and I pray that the Gulf Coast and Mid-Atlantic regions have an uneventful next few months. However, the Labor Department and my center stand ready to engage with local churches, faith-based organizations and state and local governments in the event serious storms arise. Let's not forget those workers on the front lines, the first responders, the church congregations. Their untiring efforts in times of tumult are an inspiration to us all.

Mark Zelden is the director of the Office of Faith and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Labor.