Obama takes executive action on paid family and medical leave

President Obama signed a memorandum Thursday granting paid leave for federal workers after the birth of a child. But the rest of what he wants requires Congress to pass legislation. 

Gary Cameron/Reuters
United States President Barack Obama signs a Presidential Memorandum on paid leave for federal employees in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Thursday. The President will travel to Baltimore today.

President Obama is announcing several initiatives Thursday aimed at helping working parents.

One was achieved by executive action: Thursday morning, the president signed a memorandum that grants federal workers six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, plus the right to six additional weeks of unpaid leave. The directive also applies to federal workers caring for ailing family members. 

Beyond that, Mr. Obama needs the cooperation of the Republican-controlled House and Senate. He will call on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow American workers to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time. And in his fiscal 2016 budget proposal, to be released Feb. 2, Obama will include $2.2 billion in mandatory funding to reimburse states that set up family leave programs.

“Anyone who has ever faced the challenge of raising or supporting a family, while holding down a job, has faced tough choices along the way, and likely felt stretched between the financial and personal needs of their family,” senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote Wednesday on the website LinkedIn, previewing the president’s proposals.

In her blog post, Ms. Jarrett argued that paid leave will also benefit the bottom line for employers. “These are the policies that will attract the best new talent,” she wrote.

Business groups argue that government mandates aren’t the way to go, and that companies can determine best practices for themselves.

Many companies, and some states and cities, already provide their employees with paid family and sick leave. But some 43 million private sector workers in the United States do not get paid sick leave, Jarrett says. The US is the only developed country in the world whose civil servants do not get paid parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a new baby or for personal or family health reasons. Paid leave is the next logical step, say worker advocates.

Last November, voters in Massachusetts; Oakland, Calif.; and some cities in New Jersey approved ballot measures requiring paid sick leave for employees. In 2006, San Francisco became the first city to guarantee paid sick days. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state with such a mandate.

Obama’s pitch for paid leave comes amid a flurry of policy proposals ahead of the Jan. 20 State of the Union address. In the past, presidents have laid out the year’s plans in the annual speech before Congress – the president’s biggest national audience of the year, aside from inauguration – then traveled the country to promote the proposals. Now, the Obama White House is flooding the zone with proposals before the State of the Union to build up anticipation for the speech, and to deflect attention from the newly empowered Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Other initiatives recently unveiled include: free community college for most students, protection from identity theft, enhanced cybersecurity, greater home affordability, and access to high-speed broadband.

As of this month, Republicans control both houses of Congress for the first time since 2006. Partisan tensions are high, and political analysts don’t expect Republicans to go along with much of what the president wants. But Obama is also engaging in a political exercise: He is teeing up issues for the 2016 presidential race.

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