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Who is the Department of Labor and What Do They Do?

The Department of Labor (DOL) is a cabinet-level federal agency with three overall functions that support the American labor force. Martin J. Walsh was sworn in as the 29th Secretary of Labor on March 23, 2021. He and his agency aim to protect the rights of workers and retirees, provide job training, and provide statistics related to working, prices, and income. The DOLs mission is to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights. Through this mission the agency administers and enforces more than 180 federal laws. Many of the DOL’s principal statutes are most commonly applicable to businesses, job seekers, workers, retirees, contractors and grantees.  The following is an outline of the major labor laws that the DOL administers and how they support the American labor force.

Wages and Hours

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides standards for wages and overtime pay, which affect most private and pubic employment. It requires employers to pay covered employees who are not otherwise exempt at least the federal minimum wage and overtime pay of one-and-one-half times the regular rate of pay.  For nonagricultural operations, it restricts the hours that children under age 16 can work and forbids the employment of children under 18 in certain jobs deemed too dangerous.  For agricultural operations, it prohibits the employment of children under the age of 16 during school hours and in certain jobs deemed too dangerous. The Act is administered by the Wage and Hour Division of the DOL.

The Wage and Hour Division also enforces the labor standards provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act that applies to aliens authorized to work in the U.S. under certain nonimmigrant visa programs such as the H-1B, H-1B1, H-1C, and H-2A.

Plant Closings and Layoffs

Plant closings and layoffs may be subject to the Worker Readjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN).  WARN offers employees early warning of impending layoffs or plant closings.  The Employment and Training Administration (ETA) provides information to the public on WARN, though neither ETA nor the DOL has administrative responsibility for the statute, which is enforced through private action in the federal courts.


Some of the statutes and regulations enforced by the DOL require that notices be provided to employees and/or posted in the workplace. DOL provides free electronic and printed copies of these required posters. The elaws Poster Advisor on the DOL website may be used by employers to determine which posters are required to be displayed in their place(s) of business.  Posters are available in English, Spanish, and other languages.

Garnishment of Wages

Garnishment of employee wages by employers is regulated under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, which is administered by the Wage and Hour Division.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), requires employers of 50 or more employees to give up to 12-weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to eligible employees for the birth or adoption of a child, or for the serious illness of the employee, or a spouse, a child, or a parent, and is administered by the Wage and Hour Division.

Workplace Safety and Health

The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act is administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Safety and health conditions in most private industries are regulated by OSHA or OSHA-approved state programs, which also cover public sector employers.  Covered employers must comply with OSHA’s regulations and safety and health standards.  Employers have a duty under OSH Act to provide their employees with work and a workplace free from recognized, serious hazards. OSHA enforces the law through workplace inspections and investigations.

Workers’ Compensation

The U.S. Department of Labor’s, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) does not play a role in the administration or oversight of state workers’ compensation laws or programs. So, workers or retirees who have worked for a private company or state government should contact the workers’ compensation agency for the state in which he or she worked for guidance and governance.  The following acts are administered by the OWCP:

  • The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, which provides for compensation and medical care to certain maritime employees and to qualified dependent survivors of such employees who are disabled or die due to injuries that occur on the navigable waters of the U.S., or in adjoining areas customarily used in loading, unloading, repairing, or building of a vessel.
  • The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, which is a compensation program that provides a lump-sum payment of $150,000 and prospective medical benefits to employees, or certain survivors, of the Department of Energy and its contractors and subcontractors as a result of cancer caused by exposure to radiation, or certain illnesses caused by exposure to beryllium or silica incurred in the performance of duty, as well as for the payment of a lump-sum of $50,000 and prospective medical benefits to individuals, or certain survivors, determined by the Department of Justice to be eligible for compensation as uranium workers under section 5 of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.
  • The Federal Employee’s Compensation Act (FECA), establishes a comprehensive and exclusive workers’ compensation program which pays compensation for the disability or death of a federal employee resulting from personal injury sustained while in the performance of duty. FECA provides benefits for wage loss compensation for total or partial disability, schedule awards for permanent loss or loss of use of specified members of the body, related medical costs, and vocational rehabilitation.
  • The Black Lung Benefits Act, provides monthly cash payments and medical benefits to coal miners totally disabled from pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, arising from their employment in the nation’s coal mines.  The statute also provides monthly benefits to a deceased miner’s survivors if the miner’s death was due to black lung disease.

Employee Benefit Security

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) regulates employers who offer pension or welfare benefit plans for their employees.  Title I of ERISA is administered by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) and imposes a wide range of fiduciary, disclosure and reporting requirements on fiduciaries of pension and welfare benefit plans and on others having dealings with these plans.  These previsions preempt many similar state laws.  Under Title IV, certain employers and plan administrators must fund an insurance system to protect certain kinds of retirement benefits, with premiums paid to the federal government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.  EBSA also administers reporting requirements for continuation of health care provisions, required under the Comprehensive Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) and the health care portability requirements on group plans under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Employee Polygraph Protection Act

The Act bars most employers from using lie detectors on employees, but permits polygraph tests only in limited circumstances and is administered by the Wage and Hour Division.

Unions and their Members

The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, deals with the relationship between a union and its members. It protects union funds and promotes union democracy by requiring labor organizations to file annual financial reports, by requiring union officials, employers, and labor consultants to file reports regarding certain labor relations practices, and by establishing standards for the election of union officers. The Act is administered by the Office of Labor-Management Standards.

Employee Protection

Most labor and public safety laws and many environmental laws mandate whistleblower protections for employees who complain about violations of the law by their employers.  Remedies may include job reinstatement and payment of back wages. OSHA enforces whistleblower protections in most laws.

Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act

Persons who serve in the armed forces have a right to reemployment with the employer they were with when they entered the service, to include those who are called up from the reserves or the National Guard.  These rights are administered by the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.

Veterans’ Preference

Veterans and other eligible persons have special employment rights with the federal government. They are provided preference in initial hiring and protection in reductions in force. Claims of violation of these rights are investigated by the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service.

Government Contracts, Grants, or Financial Aid

Recipients of government contracts, grants, or financial aid are subject to wage, hour, benefits, and safety and health standards under:

  • The Davis-Bacon Act, which requires the payment of prevailing wages and benefits to employees of contractors engaged in federal government construction projects.
  • The McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act, which sets wage rates and other labor standards for employees of contractors furnishing services to the federal government.
  • The Walsh-Healy Public Contracts Act which requires payment of minimum wages and other labor standards by contractors providing materials and supplies to the federal government.

Administration and enforcement of these laws are by the Wage and Hour Division.  The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs administers and enforces three federal contract-based civil rights laws that require most federal contractors and subcontractors, as well as federally assisted construction contractors to provide equal employment opportunity. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management’s Civil Rights Center administers and enforces several federal assistance-based civil rights laws requiring recipients of federal financial assistance from the DOL to provide equal opportunity.

Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, regulates the hiring and employment activities of agricultural employers, farm labor contractors, and associations using migrant and seasonal agricultural workers.  The Act prescribes wage protections, housing and transportation safety standards, farm labor contractor registration requirements, and disclosure requirements and is administered by the Wage and Hour Division.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exempts agricultural workers from overtime premium pay, but requires the payment of minimum wage to workers employed on larger farms, those employing more than seven full-time workers. The Act has special child-labor regulations that apply to agricultural employment; children under 16 are forbidden to work during school hours and in certain jobs deemed to be too dangerous.  Children employed on their families’ farms are exempt from these regulations. The Wage and Hour Division administers the law and OSHA also has special safety and health standards that may apply to agricultural operations.

The Immigration and Nationality Act requires employers who want to use foreign temporary workers on H-2A visas to get a labor certificate from the Employment and Training Administration certifying that there are not sufficient, able, willing and qualified U.S. workers available to do the work.  The laws are enforced by the Wage and Hour Division.

Mine Safety and Health

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act) covers all people who work on mine property and is administered by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).  The Act holds mine operators responsible for the safety and health of miners; provides for the setting of mandatory safety and health standards; mandates miners’ training requirements; prescribes penalties for violations; and enables inspectors to close dangerous mines.  MSHA enforces safety and health requirements at around 13,000 mines, investigates mine accidents, and offers mine operators training, technical assistance and compliance assistance.


Several agencies administer programs related to the construction industry and they include:

  • OSHA has occupational safety and health standards for construction.
  • The Wage and Hour Division, under the Davis-Bacon and related acts, requires payment of prevailing wages and benefits.
  • The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs enforces Executive Order 11246, which requires federal construction contractors and subcontractors, as well as federally assisted construction contractors, to provide equal employment opportunity; the anti-kickback section of the Copeland Act precludes a federal contractor from inducing any employee to sacrifice any part of the compensation required.


Most laws with labor provisions regulating the transportation industry are administered by agencies outside of the DOL.  However, longshoring and maritime industry safety and health standards are issued and enforced by OSHA. The Longshoring and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, requires employers to assure that workers’ compensation is funded and available to eligible employees. In addition, the rights of employees in the mass transit industry are protected when federal funds are used to acquire, improve, or operate a transit system. Under the Federal Transit law, the DOL is responsible for approving employee protection arrangements before the Department of Transportation can release funds to grantees.

For additional information related to the DOL and the laws that they administer and enforce, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com, or refer to the DOLs website at www.dol.gov.

Written by: Kristen Deutsch, M.B.A., CCP



Source of Information: The U.S. Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov




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