Obama Calls for Expanded Rights for Workers: Paid Leave, Minimum Wage, Pay Equity

state-of-unionIn his State of the Union address earlier today, President Obama came forward as a strong advocate for paid sick leave – legislation that has been backed by Democratic Congressional leaders and organized labor representatives for several decades now.

The President had flagged this issue in the weeks leading up to his speech. “Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said Tuesday. “Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave. Forty-three million. Think about that. And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own. And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington.”

Obama assembled a roundtable of working women and mothers as a visible backdrop for his challenge to a Republican-controlled Congress that’s expected to push back against the proposal — legislation that Democrats weren’t even able to pull off when they held the majority on Capitol Hill. Obama will to push forward the Healthy Families Act, a measure that has been in the works for year, and would allow workers up to seven days of paid leave per year for personal medical needs of the medical needs of a family member.

Obama met privately last week with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who represents an organization that strongly favors the legislation. Last year, organized labor helped champion paid sick leave initiatives at the local and state levels passed by voters in Massachusetts, Oakland CA, and in various cities in New Jersey.

Three states – Connecticut, California and Massachusetts – have already succeeded in efforts to mandate earned sick leave. Obama plans to implement this nationally through a mixed approach of executive action and taking the issue straight to the public to embolden additional states to follow suit.

In the Senate and House, Democrats Patty Murray and Rosa DeLauro went on record saying they will reopen debates over the legislation this year, championing the bill as a crucial economic issue for middle-class women and families, and a necessary expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which went into effect during President Clinton’s first term.

If Congressional action makes Obama’s success seem unlikely, consider Hillary Clinton’s statement on mandatory paid sick last month:

“We need to get paid leave provisions on every state ballot by 2016,” she said in December while visiting Boston to congratulate voters for requiring Massachusetts businesses to give employees paid sick time.

If Clinton does indeed announce a run for president this spring, as many expect, workplace issues that appeal to women of all ages and income levels will be center stage, as they were in the 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats consistently cite research indicating that paid leave benefits bolster workplace productivity and retention without noticeable increase in employers’ costs.

In the weeks to come, Obama will build on the recommendations of last year’s White House Summit on Working Families and exercise his executive say-so to order agencies and departments to expand the discretion they already possess to advance earned sick leave of up to six weeks to employees.

The president also will include $2.2 billion in mandatory funding in the budget he will send Congress in February to “reimburse up to five states for three years for the administrative costs” of paid sick leave policies, “and roughly half of the cost of benefits associated with implementing a program.” Obama also backs allocating more than $35 million in federal grants to develop sick leave policies at the state level and to conduct feasibility studies.

Although White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett said a GOP-controlled Congress may be amenable to requiring paid sick leave, her optimism appeared to be a legislative strategy and a political opening to contrast progressive policies aimed at working women with opposition voiced by congressional Republicans, who resist new employer mandates.

“I don’t think that you should assume that because it didn’t get traction before it won’t get traction now,” Jarrett said on a conference call with reporters. “We have a new Congress in place.”

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Emery Reddy