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

Job Training, Fair Wages and Labor Laws

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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

President William Howard Taft, the defeated and departing incumbent, reluctantly signed the law establishing the Department of Labor on March 4, 1913, moments before incoming President Woodrow Wilson took office. The law stated that the DOL’s purpose is "to foster, promote and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment."

As first established, the DOL consisted of the new U.S. Conciliation Service (USCS), which mediated labor disputes, plus four pre-existing bureaus: the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Naturalization and the Children's Bureau.

During World War I, the DOL took on the job of implementing the nation's war labor policies, which included recognition of the right of workers to bargain collectively with management, establishment of machinery to adjust grievances, and an 8-hour workday. The War Labor Administration, headed by Wilson, was placed in charge of most of the government's labor programs. Its principal component was the War Industries Board, which adjudicated labor disputes not resolved by the USCS and coordinate the purchase of war materials by the Department of the Army the Navy Department.

From 1921 to 1933, the DOL reflected Republican President Warren G. Harding’s desire for less government. Administration of a series of new, restrictive immigration laws and deportation of undesirable aliens became its main function. The department also expanded the activities of the Children's Bureau and led the unsuccessful fight for a constitutional amendment restricting child labor. To address a labor shortage, established a tradition of aid to migrant farm workers. The Women's Bureau promoted the welfare of working women, primarily through information campaigns.

The DOL took few positive steps to cope with the Great Depression. In 1931, Congress passed one of the department’s principal programs for fighting the Depression, the Davis-Bacon Act, which fought wage slashing on federal construction projects by requiring that contractors match local labor union pay rates.

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins (1933-1945), the first woman ever to serve in the Cabinet. As part of DFR’s New Deal, Perkins helped set up the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which sent young, unemployed men from the cities to work on conservation projects in rural areas at a dollar a day. While she played a major role in the design of many of the other economic assistance and social programs of the New Deal, her main contribution was in the enactment of Social Security in 1935.

Enacted in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), administered by the DOL, set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a maximum workweek of 40 hours for most workers in manufacturing. The 40-hour week has not changed since 1938, but the minimum wage has been raised numerous times and the coverage has broadened to include most salaried workers.

Succeeding FDR in April 1945, President Harry S. Truman appointed Lewis B. Schwellenbach to carry the "Fair Deal" program forward at the Department of Labor. Truman’s lofty goals for workers quickly foundered on high inflation and, as was the case after World War I, a massive wave of strikes. Reaction to the strikes led to the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which all but banned closed shop arrangements

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy brought into government an influx of officials to implement his "New Frontier.” Under the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 it provided training and assistance in regions of serious unemployment. Amendments to the FLSA in 1961 raised the minimum wage to $1.25 an hour and further broadened the scope of the law. In 1962 the Manpower Development and Training Act gave the Department responsibility for identifying labor shortages, training the unemployed and sponsoring manpower research. Strongly conscious of the rights of blacks and other minorities, Goldberg abolished segregation within the department.

The Department soon developed a wide range of programs to meet the social and economic goals of the President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" and "War on Poverty." One of the most important was the Neighborhood Youth Corps, which helped 1.5 million poor, unemployed youths work and earn income while completing high school. 

As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the independent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to enforce non-discrimination in the nation's workplaces. In the hope of opening more jobs for American farmworkers, the controversial Bracero program was terminated in 1964. Efforts by the department to secure passage of a job safety and health law were unsuccessful but they laid the foundations for future legislative action.

In 1970 the movement for a job safety and health law succeeded, and in 1971, the DOL established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to enforce rules, or oversee state-run programs, to protect against hazards in most of the nation's workplaces. The department continued to avoid involvement in most labor-management disputes. However, in 1970 it successfully mediated an illegal strike by postal workers after federal troops were called up.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 gave the DOL a major role in protecting and improving the nation's private retirement systems. The Congress raised the minimum wage in stages to $2.30 an hour by January 1976 and coverage was initially extended to 1.5 million domestic workers. Unemployment Insurance coverage was expanded to cover an additional 5 million persons and extended benefits were authorized during periods of high unemployment. By January 1, 1981, amendments to the FLSA had raised the minimum wage from $2.30 to $3.35 an hour, and farm workers were covered for the first time.

In January 1993 Robert B. Reich was appointed Labor Secretary by President Bill Clinton, who was elected on a platform of "Putting People First" and reinvigorating the economy. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act, enacted in 1994, was designed to ease the transition from secondary education to employment for the 75% of Americans who do not graduate from college. The Goals 2000 program established a national system of skill standards to certify that workers had the skills that employers needed. States were given funds to establish one-stop career centers, linking unemployment insurance, job counseling, and access to job training.

As chairman of the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corporation, Reich oversaw the enactment of the Retirement Protection Act, aimed at assuring that millions of workers in underfunded pension plans would receive adequate retirement benefits. He emphasized protection of workers by waging active campaigns against sweatshops, unsafe worksites, and fraudulent purveyors of health insurance. The Department collected tens of millions of dollars in back pay for victims of job discrimination. The Department administered the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provided workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child or ill family member. While these efforts went forward, the Department's operations were streamlined and its staff was reduced by more than 1,000 employees. 

From its birth in 1913 as primarily an immigration agency with limited labor relations and social welfare duties, the DOL has stands today as one of the federal government’s principal regulatory and human resources development departments.

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Longley, Robert. "A Brief Look at the U.S. Department of Labor." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2022, thoughtco.com/about-the-u-s-department-of-labor-3319875. Longley, Robert. (2022, December 1). A Brief Look at the U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-u-s-department-of-labor-3319875 Longley, Robert. "A Brief Look at the U.S. Department of Labor." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-u-s-department-of-labor-3319875 (accessed March 27, 2023).