Jennifer Berrier, and how a passion for public service led to her to becoming Secretary of L&I
As Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor & Industry, Berrier is responsible for aiding the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable workers.
MORE IN THIS SECTION
The Department of Labor & Industry is the biggest driving force advocating for the conditions, benefits and compensation for its state’s employees.
Since December 2020, Jennifer Berrier has been at the helm of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry as its Secretary.
When you look at her career arc, it’s been guided by a lifetime passion for public service — a passion she said comes from her father, who also worked for the Commonwealth.
“I was always intrigued in making sure that people were protected,” Secretary Berrier said during an interview with AL DÍA. “I feel like I’m a very empathetic person, and I always want to help people win, and try to do whatever I can to elevate them in life or protect them from the ills of society.”
Born in Washington, Berrier was raised in central Pennsylvania in a working class family. Knowing what a working class family often goes through, she set out to help out other working class families.
After college and law school, she immediately obtained a job with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as an attorney, practicing Labor and Employment Law.
In that role, Berrier worked to protect vulnerable workers from being improperly paid, along with other very important endeavors.
“I always felt a passion for making sure that working people get what they deserve, and get fairly paid for their work,” she said.
Berrier eventually reached a point where a life tragedy took her career into a different direction, the administrative side of government.
She spent time as Bureau Director for the Bureau of Occupational & Industrial Safety, where she prosecuted labor and employment law cases as legal counsel to the department.
This was before Governor Tom Wolf “gave me the great honor of making me the Deputy Secretary of Safety and Labor Management Relations,” said Berrier.
“So, it was a perfect marriage of doing safety type issues, and also a marriage of Labor and Employment Law, which is my passion, as well,” she added.
In late 2020, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry Gerard Oleksiak, retired from the role, providing the path for Berrier to be appointed to the position.
“After 15 years of hard work with the agency, the Governor acknowledged my work, and I gratefully accepted the appointment,” said Secretary Barrier.
As Secretary of Labor and Industry, Berrier leads an agency of 4,000 people and provides a wide array of vital and crucial services to Pennsylvanians all across the Commonwealth.
“We impact people’s lives daily,” noted Berrier. “whether it’s worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, vocational rehabilitation, helping through workforce development, and making sure that they have jobs with family-sustaining wages or even ensuring that the buildings that they’re in or the equipment that they provide in buildings are safe so that they’re protected from injury.”
She added that the most fulfilling aspect of her work is that at the end of each day, she goes home knowing that she helped so many people.
Becoming Secretary of the Department in December 2020 was quite challenging.
“It was a time when unemployment compensation was the lifeline for many Pennsylvanians, and it was an outdated, antiquated system that was not set up to handle the amount of people who are filing for benefits,” said Berrier.
While the Department received a ton of criticism, its staff continued to make immeasurable efforts to serve Pennsylvanians in any way possible.
While challenges remain, as the Commonwealth continues to move forward from the worst part of the pandemic, there can be less focus on unemployment compensation and more on workforce development.
There has been a lot of talk recently about a labor shortage. However, in Berrier’s view, the shortage falls on the lack of skilled workers within certain industries.
To Berrier, it’s important for employers to build their workforce, regardless of the industry.
She notes that the best way to do it is with an emphasis on diversity.
“I think a good way to do that is to make sure that they’re reaching out to underserved, underrepresented populations who might not have certain opportunities,” Berrier said. “That’s an ideal place to build that workforce.”