Pearls of Wisdom: What Does the Secretary of Labor Do?

Question: What kind of person should we have as Secretary of Labor?

Answer: Someone who will do the job, who will faithfully execute the laws. The first thing they would do after formally taking office is to say:

I, _ _, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Question: What are the duties of the secretary of labor?

Answer: Most importantly, the Secretary of Labor has to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act. That is the law that includes the federal minimum wage, and a lot of other things too.

  • Here’s just one of many examples:  …the Secretary is authorized to determine the fair value of such board, lodging… so for employees that get meals from their employers, the secretary could decide how to credit the value of those meals against the minimum wage.

As many states are enacting higher wages, it is up to the Department of Labor to ensure that employers are not cheating with inflated credits for meals and lodging. The exact credit granted for meals and lodging depends on both the state and the industry where the employee is working. However, if a violation is found in any state or across any industry, it is up to the Department of Labor to protect workers.

  • Another example is in the definitions: A lot of controversy surrounds what employees are subject to the protection of the law at all. In the past, some businesses have tried to classify everyone as “assistant managers,” and claiming they are no longer hourly paid workers. Employers have attempted to make a large portion of employees exempt from the protections of the law. This leaves many subject to abuse, which will be only become much worse if the Department of Labor is on a less-than-fair employer’s side, not the employee’s side.

Other things include:

  • Enforcing the ERISA law. This law establishes standards, that people who administer pensions are required to act in the best interests of the workers who do (or will) receive the pensions, and not try to benefit by making use of the pension fund assets for their own use. The labor department recently released the “fiduciary rules” which essentially says that people who administer IRAs must do what they think is the beneficiary’s best interests. The Republicans argue that the people (stock brokers, etc.) should be able to put their own interests above the account owner’s interests, without notifying the account owners, because the service providers will not make as much money if they are required to act in their client’s best interest.
  • Enforce OSHA. These are the laws for workplace safety.  The Department of Labor makes regulations for the protection of workers dealing with removing asbestos, gloves for people with hazardous materials, etc.
  • Operate the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation). If a pension fund defaults on its obligations, the labor department can seize the pension fund.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics. They publish the reports that we hear about in the news and in the process collect data used by the Department of Labor to determine the official “unemployment rate.” Though the definition of “unemployed” is codified into law, there are a number of ways that the Department of Labor could alter how the data is collected by the bureau, thus allowing them to potentially report a lower unemployment rate.

The United States Congress passed these laws, because large employers have had a tendency to fail to treat employees fairly. The American workers deserve at the very least a Secretary of Labor who understand their point of view and will try to enforce the laws for their protection.

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