A Brief Look at the U.S. Department of Labor

Job Training, Fair Wages and Labor Laws

Protestors On National Day Of Action For $15 Minimum Wage
Protestors rally across US on National Day Of Action for $15 minimum wage. Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla/Staff

The United States Department of Labor is a cabinet-level department in the executive branch of the U.S. federal government headed by the U.S. Secretary of Labor as appointed by the President of the United States with the consent of the U.S. Senate. The Department of Labor is responsible for workplace safety and health, wage and hour standards, racial diversity, unemployment insurance benefits, re-employment services, and maintenance of key labor-related economic statistics. As a regulatory department, the Department of Labor has the power to create federal regulations deemed necessary to implement and enforce labor-related laws and policies enacted by Congress.

Department of Labor Fast Facts

  • The United States Department of Labor is a cabinet-level, regulatory department in the executive branch of the U.S. federal government.
  • The Department of Labor is headed by the U.S. Secretary of Labor as appointed by the President of the United States with the approval of the Senate.
  • The Department of Labor is primarily responsible for the implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations relating to workplace safety and health, wage and hour standards, racial diversity, unemployment benefits, and re-employment services.

The purpose of the Department of Labor is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners of the United States, to improve their working conditions, and to advance their opportunities for profitable employment. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of federal labor laws guaranteeing workers' rights to safe and healthful working conditions, a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation.

The Department also protects workers' pension rights; provides for job training programs; helps workers find jobs; works to strengthen free collective bargaining; and keeps track of changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. As the Department seeks to assist all Americans who need and want to work, special efforts are made to meet the unique job market problems of older workers, youths, minority group members, women, the handicapped, and other groups.

In July 2013, then Secretary of Labor Tom Perez summarized the purpose of the Department of Labor in stating, “Boiled down to its essence, the Department of Labor is the department of opportunity.”

Brief History of the Department of Labor

First established by Congress as the Bureau of Labor under the Department of the Interior in 1884, the Department of Labor became an independent agency in 1888. In 1903, it was reassigned as a bureau of the newly-created cabinet-level Department of Commerce and Labor. Finally, in 1913, President William Howard Taft signed a law establishing the Department of Labor and the Department of Commerce as separate cabinet-level agencies as they remain today.

On March 5, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed William B. Wilson as the first Secretary of Labor. In October 1919, the International Labour Organization chose Secretary Wilson to chair its first meeting, even though the United States had not yet become a member nation.

On March 4, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor. As the first female cabinet member, Perkins served for 12 years, becoming the longest-serving Secretary of Labor.

Following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Department of Labor made the government’s first concerted effort to promote racial diversity in the hiring practices of labor unions. In 1969, Secretary of Labor George P. Shultz imposed the Philadelphia Plan requiring Pennsylvania construction unions, which had previously refused to accept black members, to admit a certain number of blacks by an enforced deadline. The move marked the first imposition of racial quotas by the U.S. federal government.