Department of Labor: Watching Over Workers


Charlotte, who is sixteen years old, just started her first job as a cashier at her local grocery store in Pennsylvania. However, when she arrives on her first day, her supervisor tells her that she will not be allowed to take any breaks during her eight-hour weekend shift. By the end of her second week, Charlotte is exhausted, and upon seeing her first paycheck, it only gets worse. Instead of the amount she expected, her employer is only paying her four dollars an hour.


Charlotte’s work situation isn’t just unfair; it’s illegal. While there is no federal law that mandates break periods, most states have laws that require breaks or rest periods for minors working long shifts, including Pennsylvania. Additionally, four dollars an hour is below both the federal minimum wage and the youth minimum wage, which as of 2020 were seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour and four dollars twenty-five cents an hour, respectively. In ignoring these laws, Charlotte’s employer can be investigated, fined, and even imprisoned by the Department of Labor.

Department of Labor

The Department of Labor, or DOL, is a federal executive department and a unit of the executive branch. The President appoints its Secretary, who also serves in the Cabinet to advise the President. Since its establishment in its current form in 1913, the purpose of the DOL is to improve working conditions, advance employment opportunities, and assure work-related benefits and rights. The DOL administers and enforces over 180 federal laws and thousands more federal regulations to achieve this goal.

The History

While the Department of Labor and Commerce was established in 1903, it wasn’t until March 4, 1913, the last day of his presidency, that President William Howard Taft signed a bill elevating the Department of Labor to a Cabinet-level department. The Department was the result of fifty years of campaigning by organized labor to have a voice in the Cabinet. 

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of the Department of Labor, the first woman to ever serve in the Cabinet. Perkins believed that the government had a significant role to play in helping address the unemployment caused by the Great Depression. She was involved in many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies to help with unemployment, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent young unemployed men to rural areas for conservation projects, like building telephone poles and planting trees. However, one of her most substantial contributions was the Social Security Act. The act passed in 1935 and ensured a pension plan for the elderly and aid for dependent mothers and people with physical disabilities. Additionally, the DOL administered the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a federal minimum wage of twenty-five cents an hour and a maximum work week of forty hours for most workers in manufacturing. Since 1938, the government has extended coverage under this act to most salaried workers and raised the minimum wage multiple times.

Because of the DOL’s many roles and responsibilities, the Department has twenty-eight different specialized agencies and offices. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces work safety standards and provides job training and education. The Wage and Hour Division imposes the federal minimum wage, child labor requirements, and overtime pay, as well as ensuring those who go on leave because of a medical or family issue are protected. 

Think Further

  1. What role do you think the Department of Labor should play in addressing issues of systemic inequality against marginalized communities?
  2. If you could create a labor law, what would it be? What issues would it address, and why do you think these issues are especially pressing?
  3. What actions could the government take to increase the effectiveness of the Department of Labor? Why doesn’t it take these actions? Are the reasons justified?


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Learn More

  1. A Brief History: The U.S. Department of Labor | U.S. Department of Labor.
  2. Bernhardt, Annette, and Siobhan McGrath. Trends in Wage and Hour Enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor, 1975-2004. Economic Policy Brief, 3, Brennan Center for Justice, Sept. 2005,
  3. State Minimum Wage Laws | U.S. Department of Labor.
  4. Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor | U.S. Department of Labor.
  5. YouthRules!