Labor Secretary 101: Why It Matters

The secretary of labor plays an important role in the daily lives of workers, from ensuring fair workplaces to advancing the economic security of working families. It is critical that whoever fills the position is dedicated to furthering these goals for all Americans.

A human resources director talks with job applicants during a job fair, January 2015. ((AP/Lynne Sladky))
A human resources director talks with job applicants during a job fair, January 2015. ((AP/Lynne Sladky))

The Senate will soon hold a confirmation hearing for R. Alexander Acosta to serve as the secretary of labor, after President Donald Trump’s first pick, fast food CEO Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination amid intense scrutiny of his anti-worker, anti-woman record. As we continue to learn more about Trump’s new nominee, here’s a quick look at why the secretary of labor is so important to all Americans.

The secretary of labor plays a pivotal role as the leader of the Department of Labor, or DOL, directly affecting the daily experiences of American workers. The secretary oversees DOL’s vast portfolio, which includes protecting the safety and wages of workers; helping workers build skills and access job opportunities; analyzing labor market and workforce trends; tackling challenges facing unique segments of the workforce such as women, veterans, and workers with disabilities; and promoting new strategies to create modern workplaces that are healthy, productive, and free of discrimination.

DOL’s effectiveness in accomplishing this work starts at the top, so it is critical to have a secretary of labor with an unflinching commitment to strengthening workplaces and workers alike.

Here are some of the key things that the secretary of labor does and why they could matter to you.

Ensuring workers are paid fair wages and overtime

  • The secretary of labor oversees the enforcement of key laws that require employers to pay workers a minimum hourly wage and overtime. These laws affect millions of workers and are the linchpin for ensuring that working families receive critical financial support.
    • In 2015, 78.2 million workers ages 16 and older were paid hourly wages.
    • Among workers who are paid the least—such as the 2.6 million workers who were paid at or were permitted to be paid below the federal minimum wage*—nearly two-thirds were women.
  • DOL has the authority to investigate wage theft and was able to recover nearly $2 billion in back wages from 2009 to 2016.
    • In 2016 alone, DOL’s Wage and Hour Division recovered $730,000 per day for more than a quarter of a million workers, or an average of $930 per year for each employee. This amount, on average, could be used to pay for one month’s rent, four weeks of food, or five weeks of child care.
  • DOL also enforces prevailing wage laws, which require federal contractors to pay their workers the hourly wages and benefits typical for the type of worker in the particular geographic area. These laws ensure protections for middle-income workers employed by federal contractors.
  • The secretary can direct the agency to expand or curtail these protections. For example, the Obama administration took action to raise the wages of low-wage workers by changing overtime rules to raise the salary threshold for workers receiving overtime from $23,660 to $47,476, affecting an estimated 4.2 million additional workers. Similarly, the Obama administration revised provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act to extend minimum wage protections to 2 million home care workers, mostly women and disproportionately women of color.

How does this affect you?

If you work in a job where you are paid on an hourly basis, then decisions by the secretary of labor can determine whether wage and hour laws are enforced. When violations occur, this may mean the difference between whether you receive the money you have earned or not.

If you work in a job where you are eligible for overtime, decisions by the secretary of labor can determine how aggressively the department will combat employer wage theft—such as not paying overtime to eligible employees or requiring you to work off the clock—to get back the pay you’ve earned.

Enforcing laws that protect the health and safety of workers

  • Under the leadership of the secretary, DOL enforces laws that ensure workers have a safe and healthy workplace. The department ensures compliance with the law through inspections and investigations. It also implements updated safety regulations—for example, to protect against newly discovered toxins or to develop injury and illness prevention programs.
  • New administrations can go further to update laws to extend worker protections. In July 2014, for example, then-President Barack Obama signed an executive order and the department developed a rule requiring employers to disclose any history of labor law violations before receiving federal contracts.

How does this affect you?

  • If you are injured or become ill as a result of your workplace environment, DOL is responsible for investigating and remedying the problem. DOL has the authority to then fine your employer and ensure future compliance.
  • If your workplace is reported as potentially dangerous, DOL may inspect the situation and pre-emptively require safety changes. Again, if the resources to investigate are shifted away, it will weaken DOL’s capacity to deal with these claims. It is therefore important to have a labor secretary who prioritizes safe and healthy workplaces.

Protecting workers’ right to job-protected family and medical leave

  • DOL enforces the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers with at least 50 employees to provide eligible employees with 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of themselves or a close family member.
  • There is much progress to be made, however, in ensuring workers have paid leave so that they can afford to take time off to care for themselves or a loved one. More than one-third of private-sector workers do not have paid sick days, and only 13 percent have access to paid family leave.

How does this affect you?

If you are eligible to use family and medical leave under the federal law, then the secretary can affect agency priorities, determining whether your claim is investigated if your employer will not let you take leave, penalizes you for taking leave, or refuses to return you to your job when your leave is finished.

Combating discrimination and ensuring healthy workplaces among federal contractors

  • More than 20 percent of civilian workers—28 million in total—work for federal contractors. DOL ensures that federal contractors comply with important anti-discrimination protections and take corrective action when problems arise. These protections help ensure that workers are not treated unfairly or denied opportunities because of factors such as race, gender, and ethnic origin. Notably, in 2014, these provisions were expanded to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • An administration can also update standards to make the workplaces of federal contractors stronger for today’s workers and their families. In September 2015, President Obama expanded access to paid time off by requiring federal contractors to provide paid sick days to employees working on federal contracts. The rule provides roughly 1.15 million workers with seven paid sick days per year, including nearly 600,000 workers who previously did not have access to a single paid sick day.
  • The Obama administration also furthered equal pay protections by fostering greater pay transparency and prohibiting federal contractors from penalizing workers who discuss their pay with others in the workplace.

How does this affect you?

  • If you work for a federal contractor, the secretary of labor can affect whether the agency takes action to uncover, investigate, and remedy discrimination.
  • In addition, if you are a federal contract worker, your recently earned right to paid sick days and stronger equal pay protections could be threatened by a secretary and an administration hostile to such protections.

Supporting job training and apprenticeships

  • Job training programs aimed at boosting the employability and earnings of adults, youth, and dislocated workers are funded through DOL. State grants administered through DOL help millions of workers across the country access training programs and job opportunities.
  • The department also helps support apprenticeships, which offer workers the opportunity to train for highly skilled occupations through on-the-job training and related instruction. The labor secretary plays a role in determining the level of resources devoted to these training programs. In 2016, more than half a million individuals were enrolled in apprenticeship programs.

How does this affect you?

If you are looking for job training or retraining to learn a more highly skilled trade, the funding level of these programs, influenced by the secretary of labor, may determine whether you are able to participate. It is important to have a secretary who values these programs.

Collecting and analyzing data

DOL tracks data on the workforce, including data on employment, wages, inflation, and productivity. These data show wage and occupational differences by race, gender, ethnicity, and other factors that are critical for determining where there has been progress and where disparities remain. Data tracked and reported on through DOL inform national economic policy and labor policy.

How does this affect you?

The priorities of the secretary of labor may determine which data are researched and analyzed most deeply to then inform policy aimed at curbing discrimination and lifting wages for workers. Groups that have historically and continually experienced wage disparities may see attention drawn to or shifted away from these issues depending on the priorities of agency leadership.

Protecting workers’ retirement savings

  • DOL protects the retirement savings of workers and families under most private-sector pension plans by enforcing the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. The agency provides consumers with information about plans and offers compliance assistance to employers and service providers.
  • In 2015, DOL, under instruction from President Obama, furthered retirement protections by implementing what is known as the fiduciary rule. This rule requires professionals selling retirement services to act in their customers’ best interests—thereby saving workers an estimated $17 billion per year through lower fees.

How does this affect you?

President Trump has already directed DOL to review the regulation, and it has been reported that the administration is working on a proposal to delay the rule’s implementation. Even if the rule stays in place, the secretary of labor will have a significant influence on how or whether it is enforced. A secretary who is generally opposed to regulation and prioritizes business interests over those of workers could put enforcement of the fiduciary rule and other retirement protections at risk. The weakening of these protections could make it harder for workers to save for a successful retirement.


The labor secretary plays a central role in ensuring and furthering the economic security of workers and their families. Regulations enforced by the department ensure that crucial workplace health, safety, and wage and hour laws are upheld. Strong secretaries of labor help advance modern workplaces that are fair, safe, and compatible with the realities of today’s working families. A labor secretary unwilling to ensure vigorous enforcement of the law or to address the needs of workers can have a negative impact on working families and their economic stability.

Danielle Corley is a Research Associate for Women’s Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jocelyn Frye is a Senior Fellow at the Center.

* Note: Estimates of workers paid below the minimum wage are based on the hourly wages they report, which do not include overtime pay, tips, or commissions. The federal tipped minimum wage is $2.13 per hour.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Danielle Corley

Research Associate, Women\'s Economic Policy

Jocelyn Frye

Former Senior Fellow

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