What Is the Department of Labor (DOL)?

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) is a cabinet-level agency responsible for enforcing federal labor standards and promoting workers’ well-being. The office is headed by the secretary of labor, a position currently held by Martin J. Walsh since March 23, 2021.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), formed in 1913, is a federal agency responsible for enforcing federal labor standards and occupational safety.
  • The DOL’s goal is to create employment opportunities, protect retirement and healthcare benefits, help employers find workers, encourage collective bargaining, and track changes.
  • The DOL enforces many laws, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes minimum wage standards and overtime pay.
  • The DOL is the parent agency of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which provides important data, such as the unemployment rate and the consumer price index.

Understanding the Department of Labor

The DOL works to improve working conditions and the overall health of the labor market. It aims to create employment opportunities, to protect retirement and healthcare benefits, to help employers find workers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to track changes in a range of relevant economic metrics. It is also the parent agency of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which collects and publishes labor market and economic data, including the unemployment rate and the Consumer Price Index.

Laws Enforced by the Department of Labor

The Department of Labor enforces more than 180 federal labor laws, include those dealing with workers’ compensation, unions, employee benefits, workplace safety and health, veterans’ rights, and parental and medical leave. These laws cover around 150 million workers and 10 million workplaces.

One prime example is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the standards for minimum wages and stipulates that overtime pay must be one and one-half times the usual pay rate. It also limits the number of hours a person younger than 16 can work and restricts those younger than 18 from performing dangerous jobs.

Major Department of Labor Agencies

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 regulates the safety and health conditions employers are required to maintain. The law is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an agency of the DOL.

Among OSHA’s responsibilities are reducing safety and health hazards in the workplace, setting mandatory occupational safety and health standards, initiating research in the field of occupational safety and health, maintaining training programs to increase competence and the number of personnel engaged in said field, and creating reporting and enforcement procedures.

Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA)

The Employee Benefits Security Administration came into being in February 2003 and “is responsible for administering and enforcing the fiduciary, reporting and disclosure provisions of Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).” It was previously known as the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration and began life as the Pension and Welfare Benefits Program in 1959. EBSA is a sub-cabinet entity with assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary posts.

Its charge is to educate and assist workers, retirees, their families, and plan sponsors with their retirement, healthcare, and welfare plans. It aims to make sure that people understand their rights under the law and claim all benefits due them. It offers direct one-on-one assistance by telephone, online, in writing, and in person. It handles applications for exemption under Title I of ERISA and consumer complaints regarding any violation of the law.

EBSA’s reach is extensive, helping nearly 154 million people covered by about 722,000 private retirement plans, 2.5 million health plans, and 885,000 other welfare benefit plans which, combined, have approximately $11.8 trillion in assets.

Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB)

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs inverts its initials to form an acronym (ILAB). It began life in 1947 under President Harry Truman as the Office of International Labor Affairs and gained its present name in 1959. ILAB exists to promote a fair global playing field for American and international workers. It is involved with “enforcing trade commitments, strengthening labor standards, and combating international child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.”

ILAB consists of three major offices: the Office of Child Labor, Forces Labor, and Human Trafficking (OCFT); the Office of International Relations and Economic Research (OIRER); and the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA). It represents the U.S. government at the International Labor Organization (ILO) and participates in such international forums as the G-20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Inter-American Conference of Ministries of Labor, and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

History of the Department of Labor

The DOL was created in 1913 by President William Howard Taft, shortly before President Woodrow Wilson took office. The act that created the DOL specified that its purpose was “to foster, promote and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment.”

The DOL included four existing bureaus at the time of its creation, which were the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Naturalization, and the Children’s Bureau. It also created the U.S. Conciliation Service. In 1916 Congress passed the Adamson Act, the first federal law to affect the terms of employment by private companies. It also created an eight-hour workday for railroad workers. The DOL has since assumed control over several aspects of the workplace and labor market.

The first secretary of labor was Congressman William B. Wilson, who held the position until 1921. Notably, the first-ever female cabinet member was a secretary of labor. Frances Perkins was sworn in to the position in 1933 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In 2018 President Donald Trump announced a plan to merge the Department of Labor and the Department of Education. The new entity would be the Department of Education and the Workforce, and the reasons given for the merger were to provide better organization, efficiency, and consolidation in services. Critics of the proposal called it a means of greatly diminishing or even ending the federal government’s involvement in education, including the department of education’s participation in enforcing civil rights. The plan required Congressional approval, which was not forthcoming, so it never became law.