Wagner-Peyser Act / U.S. Employment Service (1933)

The U.S. Employment Service (USES) was created when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner-Peyser Act into law on June 6, 1933 [1].  The USES was loosely based on an earlier “U.S. Employment Service,” created in 1918 to help the nation’s military build-up during World War I [2].  Years later, FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins recalled how her interest in recruiting young men for the Civilian Conservation Corps had helped revitalize the USES: “I had just told [President Roosevelt] that the Employment Service was practically non-existent although its name was still on a letterhead….We were trying to assist in the passage of the Wagner-Peyser bill in Congress, which in time would make an effective agency out of the service.  He said, ‘Resurrect the Employment Service right away’” [3].

A primary goal of the USES was to improve coordination of services for the unemployed.  Though there were many offices and agencies across the nation at various levels of government trying to help the jobless, they were not in sync with one another and this caused considerable confusion.  Mary La Dame, an associate director in the USES, recalled the problem that both the unemployed and those seeking to help them experienced: “… the job seeker on the street can not be blamed for bewilderment when those in the top ranks of employment service are working in a maze of duplication and confusion… It was quality, not quantity of service that the millions of unemployed needed during the depression” [4].

To improve the quality of service for jobless Americans, the USES aimed to create a coordinated system of employment assistance, with federal and state governments working hand-in-hand through state-run employment offices.  The USES also pushed for “minimum standards of efficiency,” promoted “uniformity in administrative and statistical procedures,” published employment information for the state employment offices, and conducted field surveys to assist the states with their particular needs.  Further, the USES created special services for farm workers, veterans, young workers, and others [5].  Participation in the USES program was optional, but by June 30, 1937, every state had joined in [6], and the agency was running an effective operation that helped reduce the nation’s unemployment from 20.6% to 9.1% [7].

Between 1933 and 1939, the USES and its state partners received about 75 million applications for work.  Some 26 million of these applications resulted in job placements [8].  Fiscal year 1938 provides an example of where applicants found jobs through the USES and of the importance of USES during the 1937-38 recession.  That year, state employment offices received 12 million applications for assistance (a 43.1% increase from the previous year) and made 2.9 million placements.  Over 1.9 million of those placements were in private industry, about 900,000 in regular public employment, and 42,531 in work-relief programs [9].  During certain periods, laborers in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were required to register with the USES, “in order that they might more readily find employment in private industry” [10].

From its beginning to July 1939, W. Frank Persons directed the USES.  Then, as part of a wide-ranging federal government reorganization, the USES was transferred to the Federal Security Agency (FSA) and consolidated into the FSA’s Bureau of Employment Security [11].  Over the ensuing decades, the employment services mandated by the Wagner-Peyser Act have undergone many legal and administrative changes.  As of 2016, these services are part of the Department of Labor’s One-Stop workforce system [12].

Sources: (Note: Department of Labor and Federal Security Agency reports can be found at www.hathitrust.org.) (1) “P.L. 73–30, Approved June 6, 1933 (48 Stat. 113), Wagner-Peyser Act,” Social Security Administration, https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/comp2/F073-030.html, accessed April 19, 2016.  (2) Christopher J. O’Leary and Randall W. Eberts, “The Wagner-Peyser Act and U.S. Employment Service: Seventy-Five Years of Matching Job Seekers and Employers,” The W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2008, p. 2,  http://research.upjohn.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1032&context=reports, accessed April 19, 2016.  (3) Ibid., pp. 2-3.  (4) “Mary LaDame Is Interviewed,” Washington Post, August 15, 1934, pp. 9 and 12.  (5) Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1935, pp. 33-41.  (6) Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1937, p. 18.  (7) These unemployment figures consider Americans in work-relief programs to be employed.  See Robert A. Margo, “Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1993), pp. 42-43.  (8) Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1939, p. 26.  (9) Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor, for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1938, pp. 22-23.  (10) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 17.  (11) First Annual Report of the Federal Security Administrator, 1940, p. 46.  (12) “Wagner-Peyser Act Employment Services,” U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, https://www.doleta.gov/performance/results/wagner-peyser_act.cfm, accessed April 19, 2016.  Also, see “Records of the U.S. Employment Service,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/183.html#183.3, accessed April 19, 2016.