Department of Labor

Fact Box

United States Department of Labor

Formed on March 4, 1913
Headquarters- Frances Perkins Building, 200 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, D.C.
Secretary of Labor- Thomas Perez
Employees (2010) 17,477
Annual budget (2014) $56.8 billion


The Department of Labor (DOL) is in charge of programs and laws that cover all facets of employment and work affecting 125 million workers and 10 million businesses. DOL administers federal labor laws covering workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions, a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance and other income support. Altogether the department enforces more than 180 federal laws, including such landmark legislation as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. But the Labor Department has at times lost its way in helping the working man and woman, often during Republican administrations that have favored the interests of big business. The administration of George W. Bush has been no different, thanks to the questionable leadership of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.


The Department of Labor (DOL) was established in 1913 in response to years of lobbying by organized labor for a voice in the federal government that would improve the welfare of working people. Initially, the department consisted of the new US Conciliation Service (USCS), which mediated labor disputes, and four pre-existing bureaus: the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Naturalization and the Children’s Bureau. The first Secretary of Labor was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, who selected Scottish-born Congressman William B. Wilson, a founder and former secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America.

When the US became involved in World War I, issues of war production, working conditions and labor peace took on great urgency. DOL assumed the major responsibility for implementing the nation’s war labor policies, which included recognition of the right of workers to bargain collectively, establishment of procedures to address grievances and an 8-hour workday.
After the war ended, the nation struggled to cope with labor-management conflicts that produced numerous strikes which threatened to paralyze the post-war economy. At the same time, a nationwide “Red Scare” led to a series of government raids resulting in the arrests of thousands of “dangerous” aliens accused of being Communists. The Justice Department demanded that DOL’s Bureau of Immigration deport all suspect immigrants, but Labor officials balked at the demands. As it was, more than 500 Communists were deported.
The 1920s and early 1930s were dominated by Republican administrations that were sympathetic to businesses. President Warren Harding appointed as secretary James Davis, who had attained national prominence as a charitable fund raiser. Although Davis was a union member, the department followed a neutral course toward organized labor and focused on other areas. Administration of a series of new, restrictive immigration laws and deportation of undesirable aliens became its main functions. DOL also expanded the activities of the Children’s Bureau and led the unsuccessful fight for a constitutional amendment limiting child labor. The employment service directed seasonal farm workers to areas of labor shortage, while the Women’s Bureau promoted the welfare of working women, primarily through information dissemination.
The department did little to help unemployed workers cope with the Depression under Labor Secretary William Doak, an official with the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen. Doak’s successor, Frances Perkins, the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet, followed Franklin Roosevelt from New York, where FDR had served as governor. Perkins had served as Commissioner of Labor and had developed plans to alleviate unemployment as the Depression deepened. She survived a politically motivated impeachment attempt over her refusal to deport Communist labor leader Harry Bridges and served until shortly after FDR died in April 1945.
Under Perkins’ leadership, DOL disbanded a special corps within the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization devoted to deportation of aliens. Perkins next 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. She played a major role in the design of many of the other economic assistance and social programs of the New Deal, but her main contribution was in the enactment of Social Security in 1935.
A number of New Deal programs directly involved the Department of Labor. The Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 revitalized the existing US Employment Service (USES) and established a nationwide system of employment offices. The USES also provided placement and recruitment for the unemployed and later helped administer Unemployment Insurance (UI) under the Social Security Act. The Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936 required that firms manufacturing goods for the government establish an 8-hour day and assure that the work would be done under safe and healthful conditions. It also authorized the Secretary of Labor to set minimum wages based on locally prevailing rates.
When Harry Truman succeeded FDR in April 1945, Perkins resigned voluntarily. Truman then appointed Lewis Schwellenbach, a federal judge and former US Senator, to carry the “Fair Deal” program forward at the Department of Labor. But new proposals struggled to move forward as the economy suffered under high inflation and many industries endured labor strikes. Reaction to the strikes led to the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which Schwellenbach opposed. As a result, the USCS was reconstituted outside the department as the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). Congress also ordered severe budget cuts for DOL, which critics viewed as pro-union. The hardest hit agency was the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which suffered a draconian 40% reduction in its staff.
When Schwellenbach died in office in June 1948, he was succeeded by Maurice Tobin, a popular governor of Massachusetts. With Tobin’s help, Truman won his surprising reelection in 1948, and the department won back its lost revenues from the budget cuts. Tobin transferred several dispersed labor functions into the department, including the USES, which had been removed in 1939. Congress also gave the secretary direct authority over the traditionally independent bureau heads. During the Korean War, DOL played a major role in mobilizing for defense production. In the process it began to deal with the need to raise the educational levels of workers and make better use of the capacities of women, older workers and minorities.
In 1953 President Eisenhower appointed as Secretary of Labor Martin Durkin, a Democrat and president of the plumbers and steamfitters union. The unions took Durkin’s appointment as a sign that the new administration was open to changing the hated Taft-Hartley Act. Durkin drew up amendments to the act, but when Eisenhower refused to support them, Durkin resigned in protest in September 1953.
Eisenhower replaced Durkin with James Mitchell, vice president in charge of labor relations and operations at a New York department store. Mitchell served during a period of high prosperity and low unemployment. He continued Durkin’s quest for organizational improvement, establishing himself as the administration’s representative for all federal agencies concerned with labor and reducing the overlapping of functions. In 1958 Congress authorized the department to enforce safety and health standards to protect workers in long-shoring and harbor work, and Mitchell headed a commission that investigated and publicized the problems of migrant farm workers
In 1961 President John Kennedy appointed Arthur Goldberg, special counsel to the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, as his Secretary of Labor. Goldberg became involved in a wide range of social and cultural issues. He regularly acted to settle or prevent strikes, particularly in the aerospace and transportation industries, and he abolished segregation in the department.
When Goldberg left the department to become a Supreme Court justice, he was succeeded by Under Secretary Willard Wirtz, a former labor lawyer and law professor active in Democratic politics. Under Wirtz, the department 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,” and it established the Manpower Administration to coordinate these programs.
During the Nixon and Ford Administrations a succession of five secretaries carried out policies of restructuring parts of the Great Society and decentralizing federal labor programs. George Shultz, an academic economist with special expertise in labor issues, was President Nixon’s first appointee and helped formulate the administration’s economic policies. He was succeeded by his Under Secretary, James Hodgson, former vice president for industrial relations with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Hodgson departed involuntarily after Nixon’s reelection and was succeeded by Peter Brennan, a unionist from the New York City building trades who had supported Nixon’s Vietnam War policies. Brennan was replaced by President Ford with John Dunlop, an academic labor economist and longtime government advisor. He served less than a year, resigning when President Ford vetoed a labor bill whose passage Dunlop had supported. Ford’s second appointee was Willie Usery, another unionist working in the department.
In January 1977 Jimmy Carter succeeded Gerald Ford. His primary domestic goal was to stimulate the economy and create jobs for the unemployed. He selected Ray Marshall, a labor economist at the University of Texas specializing in unemployment and minority group issues, to lead DOL. Marshall helped develop an economic stimulus program that included an expanded Job Corps.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created under Nixon, came under intense attack by 1977, and Marshall quickly instituted a “common sense priorities” program to focus on serious dangers, simplify safety and health regulations and help small businesses reduce occupational hazards. Enforcement became much stricter, safety standards were simplified, and tough health standards were issued for benzene, cotton dust, lead and other hazards. In addition, OSHA issued an innovative generic cancer policy which regulated a whole class of cancer-causing substances at once. In 1978 OSHA was joined by a sister agency, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), consisting largely of functions transferred from the Interior Department.
In January 1981 Ronald Reagan became president with a domestic agenda for economic recovery that emphasized reduced government domestic spending and relief for business from burdensome government rules. To carry out these programs at DOL, Reagan appointed as secretary Raymond Donovan, vice president of a construction company in New Jersey, who had been active in Reagan’s presidential campaign. One of Donovan’s primary goal was regulatory relief, and OSHA was the lead target in this effort. He immediately froze rules proposed during the Carter administration and sought to weaken existing standards to make them less costly for business. However, because of the complexity of rule-making procedures, existing rules proved difficult to change. OSHA adopted a less punitive approach to enforcement and encouraged voluntary compliance. MSHA and other regulatory agencies followed similar deregulatory policies.
Donovan was replaced by William Brock, the US Trade Representative and a former senator. The department began to focus on both long and short-term employment and training policies. It initiated a “Work Force in the Year 2000” project to help make plans to meet future skilled labor needs. It also cooperated with the broadcast industry in Project Literacy US.
After Brock departed, Reagan selected Ann Dore McLaughlin, who had served as assistant secretary of the treasury and under secretary of the interior. During her brief tenure, McLaughlin sought to reconcile demands of work and family life largely through non-governmental means, establishing a Commission on Workforce Quality and Labor Market Efficiency. President George H. W. Bush was then elected, ushering in Elizabeth Dole, who had held several high government positions and was the wife of Senate Republican Leader Robert Dole. Although Dole resigned in 1990, she set the main policies that guided the department until the end of the Bush Administration. She was succeeded by Lynn Morley Martin, a former member of Congress.
In January 1993, President Bill Clinton, who was elected on a platform of “Putting People First” and reinvigorating the economy, appointed Robert Reich secretary of labor,. A Harvard professor, author and radio and television commentator, Reich had previously served in the Justice Department and on the Federal Trade Commission. Under his leadership, the Labor Department focused on building up the skills of American workers. The School-to-Work Opportunities Act, enacted in 1994, was designed to ease the transition from secondary education to employment for those who don’t graduate from college. Goals 2000: Educate America Act 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.
Reich left the administration in 1997 and was succeeded by Alexis Herman, a labor relations specialist who worked in the White House before taking over DOL. Herman facilitated negotiations between UPS management and Teamsters union leaders, ending a ten day strike. Under her leadership, DOL concentrated on retooling departmental skills programs into a simpler, more efficient system, giving working people needed skills to succeed in the new economy, moving people from welfare to work and working with disadvantaged youth through the Youth Opportunity program.
After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Elaine Chao became the Secretary of Labor. Chao has been the longest serving member of President Bush’s cabinet, while running a department that has been become heavily pro-business.

What it Does

The Department of Labor (DOL) is in charge of programs and laws that cover all facets of employment and work. DOL administers federal labor laws covering workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions, a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance and other income support.

Altogether the department enforces more than 180 federal laws. These mandates cover workplace activities for about 10 million employers and 125 million workers. A sampling of the major laws that the department enforces are: The Fair Labor Standards Act, which prescribes standards for wages and overtime pay; the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act ,which details safety and health conditions in most private industries; the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which regulates employers who offer pension or welfare benefit plans for their employees; and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which regulates the hiring and employment activities of agricultural employers, farm labor contractors and associations using migrant and seasonal agricultural workers.
The Labor Department’s key offices are:
Jobs and Training

Employment and Training Administration
A key element within the Department of Labor, ETA promotes job-training initiatives and programs across the country. ETA’s largest task is to distribute funding that helps Americans receive employment training, either as first-time workers or those transitioning into new lines of work as a result of job displacement. One such program advocated by the Bush administration resulted in ETA distributing millions of dollars in grants without competition or oversight by labor officials, resulting in criticism from Congress and government auditors.
Job Corps
One of the oldest social programs in the federal government today, the Job Corps tries to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds complete their high school education and get a good start in the working world. The program has trained and educated two million individuals since it was first established during the Great Society era of the 1960s. Job Corps participants receive not only job assistance and education but also room and board during their time in the program, which can last up to two years. In spite of its altruistic mission, the Job Corps has long been a source of debate between liberals and conservatives over the program’s continuation and funding.
Office of Disability Employment Policy
ODEP oversees the government’s development of disability employment policies to improve employment opportunities for the disabled in the workplace. It furnishes employers with tools and technical assistance, along with ideas and relevant updated labor market data and to revamp their beliefs regarding who they may choose to employ. Additionally, ODEP provides practical and beneficial ways and reasons to hire the disabled, coordinates and strategizes with staffs from other federal agencies, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that also are involved with matters related to employment. In addition, ODEP helps prepare the disabled with skills that will be specifically valuable in the present job market.     
Veterans’ Employment and Training Service
VETS provides resources and services to help veterans locate grants, training and employment opportunities so they can return to a job after completion of military service. It carries out this mission through a variety of financial plans and policies for veterans and employers, including: e-VETS Resource Advisor, the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, Veterans’ Workforce Investment Program, the Recovery and Employment Assistance Lifelines initiative, USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act of 1994), Federal Veterans Preference Enforcement and the Vets Guide to Competitive and Discretionary Grants.
Working Conditions

Employment Standards Administration
ESA enforces compliance and monitors laws governing legally mandated equal employment opportunity, minimum wages and working conditions. ESA works with employers by giving technical assistance and training regarding proper administration of laws, including nondiscrimination, affirmative action, workers’ compensation, labor union standards, minimum wage, overtime and child labor.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
OSHA develops and enforces government standards geared towards protecting workers on the job. OSHA also provides training and education to employers and employees on ways to improve health and safety in the workplace. Most industries and employment sectors come under OSHA regulations, with the exception of miners, transportation workers, many public employees and the self-employed. OSHA makes available to the public a wide range of data and statistics regarding health and safety in the workplace. Also, OSHA employs inspectors who look into allegations of health and safety violations by employers and is supposed to levy fines in cases where employers have been found guilty of violations. Several Republican administrations, including that of President George W. Bush, have worked to lessen the regulatory power of OSHA and turn its mandatory worker-safety programs into voluntary-based efforts by employers.
Mine Safety and Health Administration
MSHA is the Department of Labor’s lead agency for protecting workers in the American mining industry. With a jurisdiction covering 12,700 metal and nonmetal mines and 2,100 coal mines, MSHA is charged with enforcing safety regulations that are designed to eliminate work-related accidents and health hazards. Despite its mandate to protect mine workers, MSHA has compromised mine safety as a result of its actions during the administration of President George W. Bush, which has appointed agency leaders from the ranks of mining companies.

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
PBGC is a non-profit, federal corporation that protects retirement incomes of 44 million American workers enrolled in more than 30,000 private-sector pension plans. About 1.3 million people receive their pensions from PBGC even though their companies may no longer be in business. The agency was designed to be self-sufficient, funded not through taxpayer dollars, but by premiums paid by plan sponsors, earnings from invested assets, recoveries from terminated sponsors and assets collected from terminated plans. However, there is currently a $19 billion gap between the agency’s corporate liabilities and the actual assets of PBGC. The good news: In 2007, PBGC was ranked the best place to work in the federal government by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.
Employee Benefits Security Administration
EBSA is the primary agency responsible for protecting private pension plan participants and beneficiaries from the abuse or theft of their pension assets through the enforcement of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Because private sector pensions are second only to Social Security in providing individuals’ retirement income, effective oversight of the private pension industry's management of these assets is critical to ensure the economic security of workers, retirees and their families. Yet, the ESBA has been criticized for failure in protecting the people from fiduciary interests, as well as for its lack of enforcement in compliance issues.

Bureau of Labor Statistics
BLS is the research arm of the Labor Department and the principal fact-finding organization for the federal government in the field of labor economics. It collects and disseminates data on employment and unemployment, price and spending trends, compensation, productivity and health, all of which influences economic and social policymaking and important decisions within business and financial communities. BLS data is used by the business community, industry and labor in economic planning and collective bargaining. BLS data also factors into the development of other federal statistics, such as personal income estimates and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Where Does the Money Go?

Almost $14 billion was spent on private and public contractors this decade by the Department of Labor, according to the federal web site, The biggest spenders within DOL were the Employment and Training Administration ($10.1 billion), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management ($1.7 billion), Bureau of Labor Statistics ($464 million), Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ($439 million) and the Employment Standards Administration ($300 million)

DOL paid for a variety of services related to job training for workers, including costs associated with regional offices staffed by private companies that implement Labor programs. One example is the Job Corps, designed to help disadvantaged youths gain a foothold in the job market. The Job Corps operates largely through offices scattered around the country that are mostly operated by four companies: Management and Training Corporation, MINACT, Res-Care and Career Systems Development Corporation.
Those companies receiving the most money from the Labor Department from 2000-2008 were:

Management and Training Corporation
Owl International
Adams and Associates
Northrop Grumman
Fluor Corporation
User Technology Associates

Data for Department of Labor