The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938

In a historical moment of economic hardship, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) was the first major piece of legislation that protected workers against harsh work environments and established standards against child labor. Over the years, it has broadened in scope to provide additional rights for workers based on race, gender and age. This act, born from a fire of legislative and court battles, has become one of the champions of the working person.

Historical Background

At the outset of the industrial revolution, companies knew that it was necessary to have sufficient workers to help keep up with the skyrocketing demand for factory products. In order to meet these demands, unskilled and child laborers were often hired in order to keep production costs low. In addition, many of these workers were employed 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. Factory conditions were harsh, and many didn’t have access to standard break times, bathroom facilities or time off.

In the United States, these conditions were further exacerbated by the stock market crash of 1929. Company’s that were allowing time off or sufficient pay suddenly felt as though they could not compete unless they were overworking and underpaying their employees. This resulted in a significant increase in injury, especially among child workers, many of which were working well over 100 hours per week.

The resulting outrage became a din of confusion for workers, employers and legislative bodies. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933(NRA), one of the New Deal bills passed in the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, workers were finally given the right to form unions. Many encouraged strikes and sit-ins as methods for getting companies to change their unreasonable demands. The Congress of Industrial Organizations was one of these unions, championed by John L. Lewis. In his desire to raise the standard of working conditions, he supported a number of factory workers’ demonstrations that ended in violence and death. Although he led workers somewhat peacefully against companies like United States Steel and General Motors, 10 people were killed as police defended property for Goodyear Tire.

Major factories and industries retaliated through legal action, and the Supreme Court upheld many cases in favor of the industrial complex. Time after time, the court upheld decisions that invalidated standard minimum wages, eliminated caps on working hours and supported child labor. Notable decisions included Hammer v. Dagenhart in which a federal child labor law was found to be unconstitutional. Other important verdicts, like Adkins v. Children’s Hospital and Schecter Corp. v. United States, eliminated a federal and state minimum wage, as well as standards for working conditions. In addition, the Supreme Court also found FDR’s labor law, the NRA, to be unconstitutional and the law was revoked.

Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed to change the system regardless of what it took to do it. After the NRA was struck down and the Supreme Court upheld a verdict that allowed employers to pay less than the state minimum wage, FDR promised that he would “pack” the Supreme Court in order to pass a law to protect workers’ rights. The newly appointed second-term president promised that he would appoint up to 6 extra judges in order to begin passing fair decisions on wage and labor cases.

Fortunately, the big “switch” came from one of the already appointed judges, Justice Owen Roberts. In the 1937 case West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish, Elsie Parrish sued her former employer for paying less than the minimum wage. In an unexpected switch, Judge Roberts sided with the 4 liberal minority judges in upholder her suit. In light of this Supreme Court ruling, along with other similar decisions to uphold workers’ rights, FDR discontinued his “pack the court” campaign. Thus the common expression was born: “A switch in time saved 9.”

FDR had been trying since his first term to pass a law that would protect workers. By appointing labor reform advocated Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor, he hoped that she would be able to help form laws that would be approved by congress. The Walsh-Healy Act had been a successful attempt to start the process by banning governmental purchases of goods made with child labor. Unfortunately, the NRA, has not been as successful and a replacement bill was necessary. The Fair Labor Standards Act, drafted by Senator Hugo Black, was the solution.

In the FLSA of 1938, certain provisions were listed for both adult and child workers. It specified a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour, with regular increases up to 40 cents per hour by 1945. The law also limited the work week to 44 hours, and provided a “time-and-a-half” payment provision for any additional hours worked. The bill was especially important in regulating the child work force, as it made any work by children under 16 illegal, and made dangerous occupations inaccessible to children under the age of 18.

FLSA Today

Over the last 70 years, the bill has undergone changes, usually to enhance the original scope and update for modern wages. Wage increases were main purposes for the 1948, 1955, 1977, 1989, 1996 and 2007 amendments, and set up regular schedule increases in minimum wages. In the 1961 amendments, the bill was broadened to include not just industrial workers, but also interstate and federal employees. This amendment also paved the way for inclusion of construction workers in 1962. Additional groups that were specifically included were domestic workers (1974), tipped workers (1977) and migrant workers (1983).

The FLSA also helped to bridge the race, gender and age discrimination that had previously been found in the workforce. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was an amendment of the FLSA that forced employers to pay female employees as much as their male counterparts. This was an historic addition, as companies had assumed that women were not heads of households and so deserved less pay. The decision to equalize also extended to benefits and paved the way for the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which allowed older employees to continue to receive health benefits.

Recent changes to the bill have changed the tax exemption status of many employees. In 2004, many low-level managers were given executive status under the FSLA law, which eliminated from receiving overtime and put them on salaries. This law also states that actual job duties, not job title, dictates whether an employee is exempt.

Additional Resources

The History of the Fair Labor Standards Act is an invaluable resource provided by the United States Department of Labor. This expansive reference gives details of the historical background and legislative journey of this law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, As Amended is the full text of the law as it is read today, provided by the US Department of Labor. This is an excellent reference for seeing the changes to the law over history.

George Mason University provides a downloadable powerpoint presentation about the history and practical uses of the FLSA in the workplace as part of their human resources department. They also provide an update for the 2004 amendments and current FLSA regulations.

Cornell University offers access through their digital campus to an excellent reference for overtime pay requirements. The Fair Labor Standards Act: A Historical Overview of the Overtime Pay Requirements of Section 13(a)(1) gives an in depth look at this subsection of the FLSA law and its relevance to current overtime laws.

Duke University gives additional insight into the legislative process of passing this law through a graduate paper by John S. Forsythe entitled Legislative History of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The paper details the congressional hearings associated with this legislation, its different drafting periods and the vital elements that survived to become law.

The University of Alabama offers a very comprehensible FAQ guide about the FLSA. This easy-to-read document answers questions about breaks, work hours and other common issues that are covered by the law. Although it is geared for employees of the college, it is an excellent quick reference.

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