Stephen Koppekin has specialized in resolving and negotiating employment issues for over forty years, using his vast knowledge of comparative economics, law, and dispute resolution to support him. Stephen enjoys writing about the latest labor topics on his websites.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. It establishes a minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers. For the past 80 years, this law has protected employees from labor abuse like poor wages, long hours, and child labor.

This was a landmark law for American workplaces. But, imagine what the typical workplace looked like before the FLSA was signed into law:

There were poor wages.

Before FLSA, bosses could pay workers as much or as little as they wanted — meaning bosses could pocket as much profit as they wanted. Most wages weren’t very livable, meaning almost everyone in the family, including children, had to work to keep the family afloat. It wasn’t until the FLSA was passed that workers were paid at least $0.25 per hour, regardless of what industry they worked in.

There were long hours.

If you thought working eight hours a day was long, try working for eleven, twelve, or thirteen hours per day. For the first 100 years of our country’s existence, many workplaces forced their workers to work for these unbelievably long hours.  There was a lot of pushback to cut down working hours to just 10 hours a day, however.  For example:

  • In 1791, the first strike for the 10-hour workday bill was adopted by Philadelphia carpenters.
  • In 1835, there was a general strike for the 10-hour workday in Philadelphia.
  • In 1843, the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association begins public petitioning for the 10-hour workday.

It wasn’t until 1847 that the state of New Hampshire enacted the first state-mandated, 10-hour-day law. This was a full 56 years after the issue was first brought to light. Even with this law in place, quite a few employees around the country worked for long hours during the week. In 1890, the average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was 100 hours. For building tradesmen, it was 102 hours. It wasn’t until 1938 that Congress passed the FLSA, which limited the workweek to 44 hours. Finally in 1940, Congress amended the FLSA and limited the workweek to 40 hours.

It was definitely a long journey to get to that point — about 150 years!

There was child labor.

Child labor was often used throughout history. However, it reached new extremes during the Industrial Revolution, when children were forced to work long hours at the cost of their education.  Day after day, children worked in dangerous factory conditions for very little money. Employers found them useful because their size allowed them to fit in small spaces and they could be paid less than adults.

The FLSA child labor provisions are designed to protect the educational opportunities of minors and prohibit their employment in jobs detrimental to their health or well-being. Under this act, children are not allowed to work until the age of 14 (with some exceptions like farm work or acting), and there are restrictions on how long children can work during the school year.

With all these terrible working conditions, the FLSA came to save the American worker in the early twentieth century.