Seventy-five years ago today, President Roosevelt signed into law the historic Fair Labor Standards Act. The Fair Labor Standards Act established the minimum wage, legislated a standard workweek, and outlawed oppressive child labor. President Roosevelt called it, after the Social Security Act, “the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers here or in any other country.”
Prior to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, both adults and young children often worked brutally long hours only to earn starvation wages. This was especially true during the Great Depression. As the Depression endured, firms not only laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, but also implemented significant wage rate cuts. Despite low wages, or perhaps because of them, many workers (including children) continued to work long hours in unjust conditions. Workers often labored in what were essentially sweatshops, only to earn low wages. While campaigning for a second term, President Roosevelt received a note from a young girl that read: “I wish you could do something to help us girls….We have been working in a sewing factory,… and up to a few months ago we were getting our minimum pay of $11 a week… Today the 200 of us girls have been cut down to $4 and $5 and $6 a week.” Thousands of children, as young as seven years old, were denied a basic education and instead worked in mines, mills and factories for a pittance. During his first re-election campaign, President Roosevelt publically committed to eliminating child labor and improving labor standards for all working Americans.
Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, devised the Fair Labor Standards Act with two goals in mind. First, the administration aimed to improve job quality through the abolition of child labor, the establishment of a floor on wages, and a ceiling over hours worked. Second, the administration hoped the Fair Labor Standards Act would create new jobs for millions of the nation’s unemployed by reducing overtime and forcing employers to hire more employees to compensate. The ultimate version of the Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law by President Roosevelt on June 25, 1938, established a 25-cent minimum wage (that would rise to 30 cents beginning in October 1939), introduced a 44-hour maximum work week (that would first fall to 42 hours in October 1939 and would then fall to 40 hours in October 1940), and set the general age of workforce entry at 16.
The Fair Labor Standards Act was an unequivocal success. A special study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the Act would raise wages for almost 700,000 workers, reduce hours or prompt overtime pay for over one and a half million workers, and prohibit the continued employment of roughly 600,000 children aged 10 to 15. It also put adult Americans back to work and guaranteed that they would be treated and compensated more fairly. The Fair Labor Standards Act succeeded in improving labor standards and actual working conditions, a result that continues to better the daily lives of millions of working Americans.