U.S. Department of Labor

The Department of Labor is directly related to business communities in the United States by its official charge to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners of the United States; improve their working conditions; and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.

As the United States became increasingly industrialized in the last half of the nineteenth century, it was evident that some governmental controls had to be imposed on industry to protect its workers. In 1884, responding to this need, Congress established the Bureau of Labor as an adjunct of the Department of the Interior. Before the turn of the century, the bureau had expanded to the point that it became an independent agency called the Department of Labor. As such, however, it did not have cabinet status, which very much impeded its activities and limited its director’s access to the highest administrative levels of the federal government.Labor, U.S. Department of

In 1903, the department was returned to the status of a bureau with the establishment of the new cabinet-level Department of Commerce and Labor. With the creation of this new department, whose secretary had direct access to the president, the Bureau of Labor actually experienced a decrease in its power and influence.

Realizing the need for a separate department designed to deal with the status and problems of wage-earners, President Woodrow Wilson pushed for the creation of a new cabinet-level Department of Labor (DOL) with its own secretary who reported to the president. On March 4, 1913, Congress voted to establish this new department, and on the following day, President Wilson appointed William Bauchop Wilson to be the first secretary of labor, a post in which he served for eight years.


The responsibility for the enforcement of federal labor laws falls to the Department of Labor. By the mid-twentieth century, approximately 150 such laws were in existence. They affected such areas as minimum wages, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, workers’ involvement in labor unions, and discrimination in the workplace based on gender, sexual orientation, age, or race.

The Labor Department helped soldiers returning from World War I get jobs, as this 1917 poster shows.

(Library of Congress)

The department is also charged with providing opportunities for workers to enhance their Employmentemployment possibilities through training programs that are sponsored by the department and are designed to improve and expand the employment opportunities of those whose previous skills are obsolescent or have been supplanted by new technologies. Closely associated with such job training programs is the establishment of protocols for job placement.

The United States Employment Service (USES), a branch of the Department of Labor, maintains more than twenty-five hundred public employment offices throughout the nation to help workers through job placement. Special mandates that apply to the USES establish specific aid for rural workers, aliens, veterans, and young people about to enter the workforce.

Related to the USES is the Office of Comprehensive Employment Development. This agency, with nearly five hundred offices scattered throughout the nation, provides workplace training for those about to join the workforce. Related to such programs are the Summer Youth Employment Program, designed to introduce new workers to the workplace while they are still quite young; the Job Corps; the Apprenticeship and Training Program, designed to provide youths with supervised on-the-job training; and the Private Sector Initiative Program, sponsored largely by private industry. Each of these vital programs is administered and overseen by the Employment and Training Administration of the Department of Labor.


The Department of Labor, which in 2007 had 16,126 full-time employees, is organized around four major divisions. The Office of the Inspector General is responsible for auditing the programs of the department and for ensuring adherence to existing labor laws. This office works closely with the solicitor of labor, who is responsible for all of the department’s legal activities and actions.

The Office of Information, Publications, and Reports is concerned with disseminating the basic research findings and statistics of the department, making them readily available to the public and to the American business community. The information provided through this office directly affects much of the long-term planning done by American businesses.

The matter of fair wages is a salient one in many situations involving labor. Matters relating to wages are handled within the Department of Labor by the Wages Appeal Board. This board investigates and passes judgment when wage disputes arise. Its members are well versed in labor laws as they pertain to wages and fair employment practices.

Finally, the Women’s Bureau[Womens Bureau]Women’s Bureau was established in 1920, the year in which the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution granted American women the right to vote. This bureau, which became an independent office of the Secretary of Labor in 1977, has ten regional offices that monitor labor practices involving gender discrimination in both hiring and compensation and is directly concerned with the rights of women in the workplace. The Women’s Bureau gained considerable strength when Frances Perkins, appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, served as secretary of labor from 1933 to 1945. Perkins was the first female cabinet member in the history of the United States and enjoyed one of the longest tenures of any cabinet member. The Women’s Bureau grew considerably during the last quarter of the twentieth century because of the large numbers of women entering the workforce. The bureau paved the way for this change and has overseen its implementation through the years.

Monitoring and Enforcing Labor Laws

The undersecretary of labor is responsible for assuring adherence to and enforcement of established labor laws. This oversight falls under the jurisdiction of three boards, the Employees’ Compensation Board, which is authorized to render decisions under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act of 1916; the Office of Administrative Law Judges, which conducts formal hearings relating to compensation, hours, health, welfare, and safety; and the Benefits Review Board, which considers appeals from the administrative law judges in cases involving the Harbor Workers’ Compensation Board and the Black Lung Benefits Act (1972).

The fair compensation of workers is of prime importance to the Department of Labor, second only to the department’s concern with the health and safety of those in the American workforce. The staff of the solicitor of labor deals with cases that come before the aforementioned agencies.

Labor Unions

LaborUnionsunions have been a major part of the American labor movement throughout the twentieth century. The Department of Labor and the unions often have similar aims, those of protecting workers and assuring them of fair treatment in the work place, although the department and labor unions often have quite different means of achieving these ends.

To guarantee that union bosses do not use strong-arm tactics to gain and retain their power, the Department of Labor enforces legislation assuring the fair and honest election of officials of labor unions. The department observes union elections scrupulously to make sure they are even-handed and legitimate. It also assures that workers will not be penalized for participation in union activities.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Perhaps the agency of the Department of Labor most visible to the average American is the Occupational Safety and Health AdministrationOccupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Safety, workerWhenever an industrial or mining accident occurs, OSHA is on the scene almost immediately to investigate it and to finds means of preventing similar accidents in the future. OSHA establishes and enforces safety standards for the workplace on its own initiative as well as through the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which oversees health and safety matters in mines within the United States.

Despite its emphasis on protecting workers, OSHA has been one of the most controversial agencies in the Department of Labor. Few people in industry would deny the need for an agency of this sort to help inform workers and managers of workplace health and safety measures. Many business leaders, however, complain that OSHA has gone too far in imposing difficult restrictions on the private sector. Considerable discontent with OSHA stemmed from its issuance in 1980 of the first comprehensive national report that recognized and sought to control the use of cancer-causing substances in the workplace. There was considerable disagreement about the linkages that OSHA appeared to assume between certain substances commonly found in the workplace and the subsequent development of cancer in some workers. A great deal was at stake financially for substantial numbers of manufacturing enterprises that often depended on the use of some of the substances the report had pinpointed. Categorical proof was difficult to establish because of the considerable time spans that separated workers’ exposure to such substances and the onset of cancer.

Despite such caveats, OSHA has weathered the storms of protesters who objected to many of the agency’s findings that suggested links between the development of cancer and the use of seemingly carcinogenic substances in the work place. The agency has introduced new record-keeping mandates and has demanded that documents containing medical records and exposure to toxins be made available to OSHA as well as to workers and their representatives at their request.

OSHA’s concern with Mining industry;safetymining safety has resulted in safety, health, and accident investigations of coal mines at the rate of about fifty thousand annually. Such inspections have resulted in the issuance of an average of some 120,000 citations a year. Despite a rash of dramatic mining accidents during the early twenty-first century, American mines are among the safest in the world. When accidents occur, OSHA is on site immediately and works doggedly to support rescue efforts and to take positive steps to prevent the recurrence of such accidents.

Many decisions made by America’s business community are directly affected by reports created and distributed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its publication, Monthly Labor Review, is widely read by business leaders. Among its other publications, the Consumer Price Index provides a guide to the direction in which the American economy is headed at any given time. The Occupational Outlook Quarterly is an important indicator of employment trends, while Producer Prices and Price Index measures and reports on such important trends as consumer spending.

Further Reading

  • Borrelli, MaryAnne. The President’s Cabinet: Gender, Power, and Representation. Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner, 2002. A feminist account of the functions of the presidential cabinet and of how it helps to shape attitudes about race and gender.
  • Justice, Keith, comp. Presidents, Vice Presidents, Cabinet Members, Supreme Court Justices, 1779-2003. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Comprehensive listing of those who have held public office, including the presidents’ cabinet members.
  • Morris, Richard B., ed. The U.S. Department of Labor: History of the American Worker. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976. Despite its age, this overview is worth reading for its comprehensive overview of how the Department of Labor has helped to direct the course of American business.
  • Ossian, Lisa L. “Always Working for Labor.” In The Human Tradition in America Between the Wars, 1920-1945, edited by Donald W. Whisenhunt. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2002. Appreciative account of the contributions of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to gender equality.
  • Pasachoff, Naomi E. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Appropriate for young adult readers, this is an account of the impact that Frances Perkins had on the status of women as the first female cabinet member in United States history.
  • Sarkela, Sandra J., Susan Mallon Ross, and Margaret A. Lowe, eds. From Megaphones to Microphones. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Frances Perkins’s speech, “Social Insurance for U.S.,” delivered on February 25, 1935, is reproduced and sets forth some of the tasks for the Department of Labor under President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
  • U.S. Department of Labor. 2001 Summer Employment Program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 2001. One of many annual reports that reflect how the Department of Labor helps train youth for the workplace.

Affirmative action programs

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