The history of Labor Day and the state of the labor force in 2019


What do barbeques, clearance sales, and labor unions have in common? They all relate to the unofficial end of summer: Labor Day.

In the United States, we celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September. Designated as a federal holiday in 1894, Labor Day commemorates the American labor force that fought for fair working conditions. Their efforts for which have helped usher tremendous changes to labor laws and employee rights. 

Sadly, there are no federal laws requiring businesses to grant paid or unpaid holidays to employees. Therefore, many workers are still required to work on Labor Day—a day that is supposed to be a welcomed rest for the entire labor force. Similarly, many of the industries that clock the most overtime, according to a 2019 TSheets study, are also “exempt” from provisions set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Forget time and a half. Workers in certain industries don’t even qualify for overtime pay. 

Is it time to revisit the discussion about labor laws in our country? Let’s take a dive into the history of Labor Day to explore why it is celebrated and consider how the modern world sees this holiday after 125 years of celebration. 


What is Labor Day celebrated for? 

Labor Day is a federal holiday that honors the American labor force. Started by the labor movement of the late 19th century, it recognizes the contributions workers have made to the overall growth, economic health, security, productivity, and developmental wellbeing of the country. 

Originally, Labor Day was intended to bring about shorter working days, an end to child labor, and improved working conditions to the masses. The first Labor Day parade overtook New York’s Union Square in 1882. Organized by local unions, it was a show of support, strength, and solidarity amongst the working class. Labor Day was declared a federal holiday 12 years later, in 1894. 

Although it took years, possibly the most important change that came out of the labor movement was the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. The FLSA officially established a precedent for an eight-hour workday, a five-day workweek, and stricter guidelines for workers under 18. 


125 years later, exempt workers still fall through the cracks

The FLSA is undoubtedly a significant law that establishes essential protections for many Americans. However, not all American workers are covered by the provisions outlined.

As defined by the FLSA, some employees are exempt from certain provisions, including those making a salary of $23,660 or more per year and many who work in farming, transportation, sales positions that earn a commission, driver’s helpers, loaders, mechanics, and more. 

“Some employees are exempt from the overtime pay provisions, some from both the minimum wage and overtime pay provisions and some from the child labor provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” the Department of Labor (DOL) explains.

As mentioned, our 2019 study on hours and overtime by industry found many of the workers employed in exempt positions are also clocking the most overtime: 

  • 53% of workers in agriculture, forestry, and hunting clocked an average of 55.1 hours per week.
  • 49% of workers in manufacturing clocked an average of 48.4 hours per week. 
  • 54% of workers in transportation clocked an average of 54.5 hours per week.

And workers in agriculture, for example, are among the least likely to get paid leave for vacations or sick time. The same goes for many workers in retail, food services, and other service-related industries, as those businesses often profit from holiday sales.  


What is the meaning of Labor Day in 2019?

With all this in mind, we’re left wondering if Labor Day has lost some of its meaning to protect workers and build solidarity among laborers. Given a significant chunk of the labor force not covered by certain FLSA regulations, further issues arise when considering just how rapidly the job landscape has changed.

Danny Vinik, author and Politico editor, noted in 2018 that the growing “gig economy” and freelance working industry presents a new gap in worker coverage. Many companies are forgoing traditional employees for independent contractors who are often exempt from the FLSA. However, Vinik points out that employee misclassification is becoming more prominent. Based on the FLSA’s definition of an employee, businesses should not rely heavily on the work of independent contractor complete. Unfortunately, many do.

These connections bring up some interesting observations. It’s apparent that some companies are finding unique ways to skirt around federal labor laws. And Washington D.C. and Congress are “woefully behind in collecting information” on these changing workforce demographics, Vinik says. This lack of data stalls the government’s ability to ensure these workers are covered by FLSA standards, especially in relation to minimum wage and overtime pay. 

As for the industries clocking the most overtime, the solution may also lie in updating the FLSA to expand employee coverage. But even minor updates to the law take time and require congressional, executive, and judicial approval. 

If there is a positive note to report, it’s that union approvals are reaching a 50-year high point. Historically, unions represent solidarity in the labor force, which bodes well for the meaning of the holiday. “Higher public support for unions in the past few years likely reflects the relatively good economic conditions in place, particularly low unemployment,” according to the Gallup report. 


Celebrating the laborers past, present, and future 

As we celebrate Labor Day’s 125th anniversary, let us not forget that progress is always just within reach. It may take time, patience, and some direct action by the labor force, but our country and the laws that govern it can progress. Hopefully, this year’s Labor Day can serve not only as a reminder of the challenges overcome in the past but of how the labor force has the power to enact change for the betterment of the nation.