A Baseline for Economic Freedom: 80 Years of Fair Labor Standards

Eighty years ago today on October 24, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) took effect, creating for the first time a federal right to a minimum wage and overtime while also banning child labor.

While most of us may not think of this event as a landmark achievement in the fight for freedom in this country, anyone who works or has ever worked here may want to take a moment to be grateful for the brave workers and leaders who pushed for the FLSA.

The Act used the power of the federal government in an unprecedented way to tackle conditions that amounted to economic enslavement for millions of workers and articulate new possibilities for economic rights.  

Prior to the FLSA’s adoption in 1938, countless children, some as young as 5, worked day and night and many risked their lives in dangerous mines, factories, and mills. By 1810, “about 2 million school-age children were working 50- to 70- hour weeks.”

Children and adults across the economy were forced to endure sweatshop conditions for starvation wages. Although some states and even the federal government passed legislation to prohibit child labor or establish a minimum wage, courts found those laws unconstitutional because they limited one’s “liberty” to contract with employers over wages and conditions. It wasn’t until 1937 that the Supreme Court reversed its position when it upheld Washington State’s minimum wage law.

Frances Perkins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, seized this opportunity to draft the FLSA and with it establish a new type of basic economic freedom grounded in a worker’s right to a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, a right to rest, and a right for children to be children and not simply cheap labor. 

In 2018, the FLSA continues to guarantee a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and overtime pay after 40 hours in a week, while prohibiting harmful child labor and retaliation. It also recognizes that some workers and regions may need more protections and so allows state and local governments to adopt higher minimum wages or additional coverage and protections.

Nevertheless, twenty-one states have a minimum wage no higher than the FLSA or don’t have a minimum wage at all, effectively making the FLSA the only minimum wage protection for more than 20 million workers.  

The Fight for $15 has brought new attention to the need to update and strengthen our basic minimum wage and labor rights. In November 2012, fast food workers stepped out and demanded both a $15 minimum wage and a union. Although some perceived it as an almost outrageous demand, it reflected the decidedly outrageous fact the current federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for almost ten years, and almost half (43.7%) of U.S. workers earn under $15 an hour.

As the cost of living continues to climb despite stagnating wages for many workers, the current minimum wage’s full-time annual pay of $15,080 is simply not enough for most workers to afford the basics 

And while our young children now have a right to go to school instead of the factory or mill, parents and their children increasingly struggle.

A worker in Houston, Texas, explained, for example, that she’s an active participant in the Fight for $15 because even though she’s worked for McDonald’s for 22 years, she has no money left over after her car, insurance, and other basic expenses, and this makes her sad because she doesn’t “have anything left for any luxuries, such as filling up the fridge with food.” She wants more time to spend with her children who miss her with her hectic work schedule, and she wants a “dignified life that they deserve.”  

Just like the reformers of the New Deal knew, today’s workers and many leaders around the country know we can do better. Since 2012, more than 20 states and more than 40 cities and counties have adopted a higher minimum wage, benefitting more than 19 million workers and raising wages by more than $62 billion. Congress could choose to act at any moment on the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024. 

Workers and advocates now face a hostile administration, however. In fact, the Department of Labor announced an anti-worker regulatory agenda last week. Among other things, the Department aims to weaken overtime provisions adopted by the Obama administration to reverse the decline in the number of workers covered by overtime—in 1975, 65 percent of salaried workers were eligible for overtime but only 11 percent of workers qualify today.

Another proposed rule would put children at risk by lowering age restrictions on the application of toxic pesticides, and yet another would allow more 16- and 17- year olds to work in hazardous occupations. 

Ultimately, the FLSA established our most basic workplace protections 80 years ago and its core values remain as relevant today as they have ever been.

Reflecting on the hard, sometimes gruesome, conditions that led to its enactment should remind us not to take any piece of it for granted, and challenge us to push for an equally bold vision of economic freedom for our times.    


Related to

About the Author

Laura Huizar

Immigrant Worker Justice Program Director, National Employment Law Project

The Latest News

All news