75 Years of the FLSA: Celebrating and Looking Ahead

Nov 19, 2013

By Lauren French

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the first federal law to set standards for minimum wage, overtime, and child labor regulations. The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor celebrated this milestone by bringing together workers, researchers, and advocates to discuss the development of the FLSA and the future of workplace protections.

The event featured a number of well-respected policy experts speaking on a range of issues that affect workers and employers, including the need to raise the minimum wage, reform overtime rules, increase enforcement efforts and address the struggles faced by women in the workforce. In discussing the contentious history of the FLSA passage, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez reminded attendees that the battles labor advocates and government officials face today are not so different from those faced 75 years ago. Secretary Perez quoted President Franklin Roosevelt, who warned, on the night before the signing of the FLSA, "Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, ...tell you...that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry."

One important discussion on the future of workplace protections centered on the need for paid family and medical leave. Heather Boushey, chief economist at the Center for American Progress, explained that paid leave is necessary to protect the millions of Americans every year who are forced to file for bankruptcy due to their illness or the illness of a family member. She explained the two important ways in which the existing Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA) falls short of providing economic security for American families. First, restrictions on firm size and hours worked leave many workers outside of the law's protection. Secondly, as many as 46 percent of FMLA-eligible employees who needed leave but did not take it, cited affordability as the reason. Boushey suggests looking to successful state family leave insurance programs, such as those in New Jersey and California, as models for a national paid leave insurance program. Rhode Island also recently passed a family leave insurance law.

Speakers at the November 15th event also emphasized that lack of paid leave tends to disproportionately affect more vulnerable workers. Ruth Milkman, CUNY Graduate Center Sociology Professor, described how access to paid leave is highly segregated. Working parents who are non-Hispanic and have higher incomes are significantly more likely to have access to paid leave than their low-income or Latino counterparts. Milkman also noted that this disparity is especially dramatic for women.

While we celebrate this important milestone in workplace protections, we must also remember how much more we still have to accomplish. Lack of guaranteed access to paid leave is a crucial gap in existing workplace protections.  None of us should be forced to choose between   our economic security and our health or that of our families. Let's make paid family and medical leave the new labor standard.

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