The many motivations behind Obama's paid sick leave plan

On Labor Day, President Obama announces new paid sick leave rules for government workers. As his final term winds down, there are many reasons for him to want to act.

Andrew Harnik/AP
President Obama boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday to travel to Boston to speak at the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day Breakfast. Mr. Obama will sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to offer their employees up to seven days of paid sick leave per year.

President Obama’s Labor Day announcement of an executive order requiring paid sick leave for federal contractors is the latest step in a broader second term push to expand worker protections.

Speaking at a Greater Boston Labor Council breakfast, Mr. Obama said the new regulation would offer roughly 300,000 people working on federal contracts the ability to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. Federal law already requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But the White House says some 44 million workers – or 40 percent of the total private-sector work force – do not have access to paid leave.

Workers could use the paid time off under the Obama administration proposal to care for themselves or a family member or to deal with absences resulting from domestic violence or sexual assault. The provision would take effect in 2017, after Obama leaves office.

At the union rally, the president also announced that the Labor Department this week will publish a final rule prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against employees and job applicants who want to discuss how much money they make. The goal is to provide "a critical tool to encourage pay transparency and make it easier for workers to recognize pay discrimination and seek appropriate remedies," according to a White House fact sheet.

The rule could be of special help to women who, on average, make 78 percent of what men make.

The president signaled his intention to take action to fight income inequality and declining economic mobility in a December 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kan. In that address, Obama said, “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class.”   

But the pace of pro-labor action increased significantly after his reelection. The president “has probably been more overtly pro-worker in the second term,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a recent Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters.” 

He cited new overtime regulations, a federal worker pay raise for 2016, and the upcoming Oct. 7 White House summit on worker voice.

  • Last month, a federal court upheld Labor Department regulations that extend minimum-wage and overtime pay rules to most home-health workers, who previously had not been covered by the standards.
  • In June, the administration proposed to more than double the weekly salary threshold – to $970 – that determines who is eligible for overtime pay.  The Labor Department estimates the step would make 5 million more workers entitled to overtime pay.
  • Last year, a Labor Department rule became effective that banned discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity in the federal contracting workforce. 
  • In 2014 the President signed an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for all workers on federal construction and service contracts.

At least three motivating factors are apparent in the president’s steps to aid workers. 

After his first term, Obama became convinced that the Republican controlled Congress would not approve legislation he requested. So the president began using executive orders that help federal workers and lay the groundwork for wider adoption in the future.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, the president called for a “year of action” to build new ladders of economic opportunity. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said. “But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” 

Steps to improve conditions for workers also help build a legacy for a president nearing the end of his term. Obama’s early career was spent as a community organizer in Chicago with a special interest in helping those on the economic margins. So the labor issues have a special resonance for him.

The spate of pro-worker actions also come in the context of the labor movement being an important Democratic Party constituency in the 2016 presidential election. It would clearly help protect Obama’s legacy if a Democratic president followed him.  

White House relations with labor could use some attention. Labor leaders are unhappy with the 12-nation Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the White House has negotiated. And Mr. Trumka is sharply critical of the pace at which the White House has acted on workplace safety regulations.  “We haven’t seen the needed regulations to keep pace with the change in the environment of the workplace,” he said. “We kill 150 workers a day in this country. Doesn’t that bother any of you?”

At the recent breakfast, Trumka also criticized Hillary Clinton’s strategy of not being specific about her views on the TPP trade deal. “Candidates that try to skirt the issues, not talking about where you are on TPP, hurt you when it comes to activating the membership and the general populous. They want to know where people are even if they disagree with you.”

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