Labor Department

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Labor Department

The Department of Labor (DOL) administers federal labor laws for the Executive Branch of the federal government. Its mission 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" (29 U.S.C.A. § 551 [1985]). The DOL was created in 1913 out of four bureaus from the Department of Commerce and Labor: the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Naturalization, and Children's Bureau.

The DOL is headed by the secretary of labor, who serves in the president's cabinet. The department's numerous responsibilities include administering and enforcing 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 protects workers' Pension rights, provides for job training programs, helps workers find jobs, and works to strengthen the Collective Bargaining process. It keeps track of changes in employment, prices, and other economic measurements. The DOL also makes special efforts to address the unique job market problems of minorities, women, children, the elderly, disabled persons, among other classes of workers.The major bureaus and agencies within the DOL are the Employment and Training Administration, Employee Benefits Security Administration, Employment Standards Administration, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Veterans' Employment and Training Service. Other organizations, including the Women's Bureau, Office of the American Workplace, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy, and the Office of Disability Employment Policy, also function within the department.

Employment and Training Administration

The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) administers major programs relating to employment services, job training, and unemployment insurance. The ETA also administers a federal-state employment security system, funds and oversees programs to provide work experience and training for groups having difficulty entering or returning to the workforce, and formulates and promotes apprenticeship standards and programs.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) helps protect the economic future and retirement security of workers, as required under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) (29 U.S.C.A. § 1001). EBSA assists over 200 million participants and beneficiaries in pension, health, and other employee benefit plans. It also assists more than three million plan sponsors and members of the employee benefit community. EBSA promotes voluntary compliance and facilitates self-regulation to provide assistance to pension and benefit plan participants and beneficiaries. ERISA requires administrators of private pension and welfare plans to provide plan participants with easily understandable summaries of their plans. These summaries are filed with the EBSA, along with annual reports on the financial operations of the plans and on the bonding of persons charged with handling plan funds and assets. Plan administrators must also meet strict fiduciary responsibility standards, which are enforced by the EBSA.

Employment Standards Administration

The Employment Standards Administration administers Minimum Wage and overtime standards through its Wage and Hour Division. This division seeks to protect low-wage incomes as provided by the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 201), and to discourage excessively long hours of work through the enforcement of the overtime provisions of the act. The division also determines the prevailing wage rates for federal construction contracts and federally assisted programs for construction, alteration, and repair of public works subject to the Davis-Bacon Act (40 U.S.C.A. § 276a) and related acts.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has responsibility for occupational safety and health activities. OSHA was established by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (29 U.S.C.A. § 651 et seq.). It develops and issues occupational safety and health standards for various industries and occupations. OSHA also formulates and publishes regulations that employers are to follow in maintaining health and safety. It conducts investigations and inspections to determine compliance with these standards and regulations, and if it finds noncompliance, it may issue citations and propose penalties.

Mine Safety and Health Administration

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is responsible for safety and health in coal and other mines in the United States. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (30 U.S.C.A. § 801 et seq.) gave the MSHA strong enforcement provisions to protect coal miners, and in 1977 the act was amended to protect persons working in the non-coal areas of the mining industry, such as silver mining.

The MSHA develops and promulgates mandatory safety and health standards for the mining industry, inspects mines to ensure compliance, investigates mining accidents, and assesses fines for violations of its regulations. It helps the states develop effective state mine safety and health programs. The MSHA also conducts research on mine safety, in the hope of preventing and reducing mine accidents and occupational diseases.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is the principal data gathering agency of the federal government in the broad field of labor economics. It has no enforcement or regulatory functions. The bureau collects, processes, analyzes, and disseminates data relating to employment, unemployment, and other characteristics of the labor force. It also analyzes prices and consumer expenditures, economic growth and employment projections, and occupational health and safety. Most of the data are collected by the bureau, the Bureau of the Census, or state agencies.

The basic data are issued in monthly, quarterly, and annual news releases, bulletins, reports, and special publications. Data are also provided electronically, including on the Internet.

Veterans' Employment and Training Service

The Veterans' Employment and Training Service directs the DOL veterans' employment and training programs through a nationwide network of support staff. The service's field staff work closely with state employment security agencies to ensure that veterans are provided the priority service required by law. The service provides public information and designs outreach activities that seek to encourage employers to hire veterans. It also administers programs designed to meet the employment and training needs of veterans with service-connected disabilities, Vietnam-era veterans, and veterans recently separated from military service.

Other Agencies

The Women's Bureau formulates standards and policies that promote the welfare of wage earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.

The Office of the American Workplace was created in 1993 to enhance employer-employee relations and collective bargaining, as well as to ensure that labor unions are run democratically. It works to establish labor-management networks that disseminate information concerning cooperative labor-management relations and high-performance workplace practices. It conducts investigative audits to uncover and remedy criminal and civil violations of federal law. Its Office of Labor-Management Standards conducts criminal and civil investigations to safeguard the financial integrity of unions and to ensure union democracy.

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs carries out DOL international responsibilities. It works with other government agencies to formulate international economic, trade, and immigration policies affecting U.S. workers. The bureau represents the United States on delegations to multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations and in international bodies such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, International Labor Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other U.N. organizations. It also helps administer the U.S. labor attaché program at embassies abroad and carries out technical assistance projects in other countries.

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy (OASP) advises and assists the secretary of labor in, and coordinates and provides leadership to, the department's activities in addressing economic policy issues, conducting economic research, and formulating regulations and procedures bearing on the welfare of American workers. OASP also provides leadership and oversight for coordinating and managing the department's public Web site, ensuring its information and services are cohesive, accessible, timely, accurate, and authoritative.

In 2001 Congress approved an Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Part of the Department of Labor, ODEP is headed by an assistant secretary. ODEP provides leadership to increase employment opportunities for adults and youth with disabilities. ODEP serves individuals with disabilities and their families; private employers and their employees; federal, state, and local government agencies; educational and training institutions; disability advocates; and providers of services and government employers.

The secretary and all of the separate offices, bureaus, and agencies in the Department of Labor receive support from seven administrative bodies: the Office of Congressional and Inter-governmental Affairs, Office of Administration and Management and Chief Information Office, Office of the Chief Financial Officer, Office of the Solicitor, Office of the Inspector General, Office of Public Affairs, and Office of Small Business Programs. These seven administrative bodies assist the secretary and the Department of Labor to function smoothly, to maintain its vast records, to publicize its initiatives, and to represent the department in Congress regarding issues, legislation, and programs and initiatives that fall within the broad scope of the Labor Department's responsibility.

On March 6, 2001, the labor secretary announced the creation of a new Office of the 21st Century Workforce. The 21st Century Workforce mission is to help ensure that all American workers have the opportunity to equip themselves with the necessary tools to succeed in their careers in the environment of rapid change and technological innovation that marks this period in the history of the American workforce. The changes in national and global economies include a fundamental transformation for all industries and increasingly require higher skill sets and higher education.

Further readings

U.S. Government Manual Web site. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).

U.S. Labor Department. Available online at <> (accessed July 28, 2003).


Collective Bargaining; Employment Law; Labor Law; Labor Union; Mine and Mineral Law; Workers' Compensation.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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