Definition of Department of Labor (DOL)

Definition of Department of Labor

The Department of Labor is often referred to as the DOL. It is the government entity responsible for overseeing regulations related to employment.

What is the U.S. Department of Labor?

The U.S. Department of Labor is a federal agency that protects employees against unfair labor practices. The agency enforces laws and regulations covering wage and hour standards, unemployment benefits, and occupational safety, among other things.

It has three overall functions:

  1. Protecting worker and retiree rights
  2. Job training
  3. Providing employment-related statistics

Why is the Department of Labor important to small businesses?

The U.S. Department of Labor is one of a handful of federal agencies that regulate the workplace. The agency conducts audits of businesses every year, and there are many different types of audits. The DOL has authority over almost 200 laws, and auditors are accountable for checking for compliance with those laws.


The Labor Department is headed by a political appointee. Marty Walsh, a former union president, and former Boston mayor, is the current Secretary of Labor—a Presidential Cabinet position. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in March 2021.

The department’s headquarters is located in Washington, D.C.

The Labor Department works in conjunction with state labor departments. Each state has its own Labor Department as well as its own state labor laws.

What is the history of the Department of Labor?

President William Howard Taft created the agency in March 1913.

Other agency names

DOL or the Labor Department.

Notable agencies within the Labor Department

The Labor Department includes about 30 agencies. The most notable agencies are:

  • The Wage and Hour Division (WHD). WHD was created under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It enforces wages, overtime pay, leaves, business recordkeeping requirements, and child labor.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA enforces standards for workplace safety.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). BLS provides workforce statistics.
  • The Employment and Training Administration (ETA). ETA provides job training programs, including the Job Corps.
  • The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA). The EBSA governs benefit plans, including those responsible for overseeing private retirement and health.
  • The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC pays private pensions if an employer can not do so.

Laws enforced by the Labor Department

The Labor Department enforces a little over 180 federal laws ranging from pay to parental leave.

Wage and Hour

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes:

  • Minimum wage
  • Overtime pay
  • Recordkeeping
  • Child labor standards

The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division enforces this regulation.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that covered employers provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. The time off can be used for the birth of a child or the serious illness of the employee or a family member. The FMLA is enforced by the Wage and Hour Division.

Garnishment of employee wages is governed by the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). The law forbids employers from terminating the employment of workers because their wages have been garnished. It also limits the percentage of the worker’s wages than can be taken per paycheck. The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division enforces the CCPA.

Private employers cannot use lie detector tests during pre-employment screening or a worker’s employment under the Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA). The Act allows for polygraph tests under certain circumstances. The Wage and Hour Division enforces this law.

The Wage and Hour Division enforces the labor protections found in the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Workplace Safety and Health

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act. Employers covered by the OSH Act must follow OSHA’s standards for workplace health and safety.

OSHA also enforces the whistleblower protections found in many laws.

Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSAWPA) specifies wage protections, housing, and transportation safety standards for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers. The Wage and Hour Division enforces this law.

Employee Benefit Security

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) outlines rules for private-sector health or welfare benefits plans. The law sets minimum standards for plan sponsors and administrators. The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) enforces Title I of ERISA.


The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provides that servicemembers have a right to continued employment with their employer when called for military service. The DOL’s Veterans Employment and Training Service enforces USERRA.

What can I expect during a Labor Department audit?

Audits generally take a few weeks. DOL investigators will examine your employment records for the past two years and interview employees. Auditors typically visit the physical workplace, although they conducted audits virtually during the height of COVID-19. Auditors will look for violations of relevant federal laws such as the FLSA and the FMLA.

Penalties for violations generally include fines. However, criminal prosecution is possible in instances of repeated or willful non-compliance.

Experts have several tips for handling DOL audits, including:

  • Conducting periodic internal compliance reviews to locate and remedy issues before government auditors show up.
  • Putting together a team in advance that will interact with agency auditors
  • Preparing commonly requested documents such as your EIN number, state registration form, etc., and keeping them in an inspection binder
  • Cooperating with investigators when they show up

Information about how to handle a Department of Labor investigation

Other terms similar to the Department of Labor that can assist you

  • Presidential Cabinet Member: a group of the most senior appointed officers of the federal government’s executive branch. The president nominates these positions, and Congress confirms them.
  • Employer Identification Number (EIN): A unique 9-digit identification number assigned to businesses by the IRS to provide specific identification similar to how a social security number provides unique ids for individuals.
  • Audit: The examination or inspection of various policies, practices, and records conducted by an auditor, followed by physically checking adherence to established laws to make sure that all departments are following standard rules.

Summary of the definition of the Department of Labor

The Department of Labor has broad authority over the workplace. Legal experts say the agency, especially the Wage and Hour Division, is serious—perhaps even aggressive, about its mission to protect workers’ rights. Employers and HR professionals need to understand and comply with the laws enforced by the Labor Department to keep from incurring enforcement actions.

Similar glossary definitions you must know

  • Nonexempt employee: A nonexempt employee is an hourly team member who is not exempted from the FLSA’s provisions and protections regarding overtime and acceptable worker treatment.
  • Exempt employee: An exempt employee is a salaried employee who is not covered under the FLSA.
  • Willful non-compliance: Intentionally disregarding laws and policies to avoid complying with rules with which one disagrees.

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