Minimum Wage & Child Labor: Purpose of the Fair Labor Standards Act

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  • 0:05 History of the Fair…
  • 1:58 A Living Wage
  • 3:15 Overtime Pay
  • 4:35 Child Labor Laws
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed during the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression eras of the United States. It was common for workers to experience cruel work environments during this time. This lesson explains the purpose of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the provisions on minimum wages and child labor.

History of the Fair Labor Standards Act

'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.'

This was the heartbreaking message inside a note passed to President Franklin Roosevelt while on a campaigning trip. The young girl tried to pass the President a note through the crowd, but a policeman pushed her back. The president told an aide to get the note and, thankfully, he read it. He later commented, 'something has to be done about the elimination of child labor and long hours in starvation wages.'

Roosevelt won re-election in 1936, and immediately worked to push through legislation to protect America's laborers. The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, was passed in 1938. It's a federal statute passed to protect workers from abuses that were occurring during the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression. During this time, it was commonplace for companies to pay workers small wages and employ workers for long hours. Many people, especially new immigrants, felt the work conditions were oppressive, but felt they had to take the jobs in order to provide for their families.

Generally speaking, the purpose of the FLSA was three-fold. The law has been amended many times, but is still prominently in use today. These are the main provisions:

  1. It mandated that workers would be paid a living wage.
  2. It mandated that workers would be paid for overtime work.
  3. It created new laws regarding child labor.

Let's take a look at each of these provisions separately.

A Living Wage

The FLSA established a living wage for workers. This is a federal minimum wage required to be paid to workers per each hour worked. This means that employers are required by law to pay workers at least this specific, regulated amount per hour. This only applies to non-exempt employees, or those employees that are paid on an hourly basis.

When the FLSA was passed in 1938, the minimum wage was a mere $0.25 per hour. Let's think for a moment about the young girl that passed the note to President Roosevelt. She was originally making $11 a week, but her wages had been cut to $4 a week. With the new minimum wage standard in place, she would make $10 a week if she were working a 40-hour workweek. She probably wasn't, but we'll cover that part in a moment. The federal minimum wage amount has been amended almost 30 times since 1938. The most recent amendment was in 2009 and set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 per hour. Note that this rate is only the minimum standard that an employer must pay, which means it's known as a starting rate. Many employees are paid on an hourly basis but are paid much more than this hourly rate.

Overtime Pay

Now, let's take a look at that 40-hour workweek. The FLSA also guaranteed workers overtime pay, which means that non-exempt employees must be paid at a rate that is time-and-a-half the regularly paid rate for any hours worked over 40 hours in one workweek. The overtime rate is calculated using the individual employee's pay rate, so the rate varies by employee. Also note that a workweek is a full 7 days.

For example, let's say that the young girl's name is Emma. Emma still works in the sewing factory, but due to major overhauls she now makes $5 an hour. Emma worked 50 hours last week. Emma will be paid $200 for the 40-hour workweek, which is her normal pay rate. But, Emma also worked 10 hours of overtime. Emma will be paid time-and-a-half for these 10 hours. Here is how time-and-a-half is calculated: Add her normal pay rate of $5 per hour to half of her normal pay rate, or $2.50 per hour. Emma will be paid $7.50 an hour for these 10 hours, or another $75 for the week. Emma's pay for the entire week will be $275.

Child Labor Laws

Remember, however, that the young girl was a child laborer. The FLSA established groundbreaking rules limiting the employment of minors in oppressive child labor. For the first time, minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children would be regulated by federal law. The law included sections that restricted the number of hours a child could work, and banned children under the age of 18 from working in extremely hazardous or dangerous jobs.

During the Industrial Revolution, factories employed children as young as six years old for little or no pay. These kids sometimes worked up to 19 hours a day to perform dangerous work, often performing perilous tasks in areas where only children's bodies or hands would fit. Under the new provisions of the FLSA, workers under the age of 18 could no longer work in these dangerous jobs at all.

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