President Barack Obama on Thursday renewed his push for paid leave for parents and other workers, signing a memorandum directing federal agencies to advance workers six weeks of paid sick leave.
Obama, who will make a new push on the issue, beginning with the State of the Union address he delivers Tuesday night, said he is astonished that so many people don’t receive such benefits. "How can we support working families so they have the tools to succeed in this new economy?" Obama said at a Baltimore cafe that offers earned sick leave to its small workforce. He and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., had discussed balancing work and family with a group of women there. Obama said the issue transcends demographics and geography. "We really can do something about it," he said.
Obama will call on Congress, states and cities to pass measures to allow tens of millions of workers to earn up to a week of paid sick time a year. He'll also ask Congress for more than $2 billion to encourage states to create paid family and medical leave programs.
In addition, Obama will take steps to provide federal employees with up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child. And he'll propose that Congress pass legislation to give federal workers an additional six weeks of paid parental leave.
Details on how Obama would raise the $2 billion will be released next month.
Obama said the Baltimore cafe owner has offered above-minimum-wage pay and earned sick leave to all employees since opening in late 2010. He said that type of investment "pays dividends" and cited reduced turnover as one benefit.
Obama wants Congress to pass legislation, sponsored since 2005 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., to allow workers to earn up to a week of paid sick leave to care for themselves or a sick family member, obtain preventive care or deal with domestic violence. Workers would earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. Employers that already provide paid sick time would not have to change their policies as long as the time earned can be used for the same purposes.
Obama will also call on states and cities to adopt similar legislation; some already have, as the White House noted in a fact sheet.
More than 40 million U.S. private sector workers don't have any type of paid sick leave, said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, meaning they lose pay if they stay home when sick or to care for someone who is. Jarrett said paid sick leave would help the U.S. compete globally by reducing employee turnover and contributing to worker productivity. "This is not a partisan issue," she said. "This is a family issue, and it's an economic issue."
The National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses, agrees it's an economic issue but opposes the effort.
Spokesman Jack Mozloom said required paid leave would force the association's members, most of whom have fewer than 25 employees, to make cuts in pay and benefits. He argues that the president's proposals would harm the people Obama and the advocates of these policies say they want to help. "It ripples through the economy in ways the advocates and the president, I think, sometimes don't see," Mozloom said.
Obama will also outline ways to broaden access to paid family and medical leave. The 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off without losing their job to care for a new child, recover from an illness or care for an ill family member. The White House says most families cannot afford such long stretches of time off without pay.
Three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – offer paid family and medical leave. To encourage others to follow, Obama will propose $2.2 billion in new spending to reimburse up to five states for three years for the actual and administrative costs associated with implementing similar programs.
For the federal workforce, Obama will propose legislation providing six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. Federal workers receive paid sick leave and vacation time, but no paid time off specifically for family or parental leave. Under the proposal, federal workers could use sick time to care for a healthy child after birth or adoption.
Before heading to Baltimore, Obama directed federal agencies to advance six weeks of paid sick leave that federal workers could use as paid family leave. Workers would have to pay back the sick leave over time.
DeLauro and women's groups applauded the announcement.
"Workplaces need to respond to the reality of family life in the 21st century, and allowing employees to have seven sick days a year is a bare minimum," DeLauro said. "The fact that the United States is one of just a handful of countries that does not require paid family or sick leave is nothing short of shameful."
The odds that Congress will send the bill to Obama appear slim; it was first introduced a decade ago but has never been passed.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press