Obama Plans to Push Paid Family and Sick Leave for Workers

Julie Hirschfeld Davis

WASHINGTON — President Obama will announce Thursday that he is directing federal agencies to give their employees up to six weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child, a benefit he wants to extend to all American workers.

He will also call on Congress to pass a bill that would allow workers across the United States to earn up to seven paid sick days a year and would create a $2 billion incentive fund to help states pay for family leave programs, officials said late Wednesday.

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The president needs congressional approval to require federal agencies to provide the six weeks of paid parental leave. But in the absence of that legislation, the president will sign a memorandum to mandate that agencies advance new mothers and fathers a six-week chunk of paid time off — a benefit that is now only discrentionary.

President Barack Obama speaks at Cedar Falls Utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Jan. 14, 2015, about steps to increase access to affordable, high-speed broadband across the country.
Larry Downing | Reuters

The White House described the plans — the latest in a series that have been proposed in the days leading up to the president's State of the Union address on Jan. 20 — as part of Mr. Obama's focus on improving the lives of middle-class Americans.

"The truth is, the success and productivity of our workers is inextricably tied to their ability to care for their families and maintain a stable life at home," Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser, wrote Wednesday in a posting on the employment network LinkedIn, where the White House shared the first details of the proposal.

"The president intends to ensure that the federal government is a model employer," Ms. Jarrett wrote. "We'll have the most skilled and productive work force possible as a result."

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They are likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans are focused on reining in spending and have opposed Mr. Obama's proposals to increase pay and benefits, arguing that it is not the government's role to issue such mandates.

More than half of American workers are eligible for parental or sick leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows them to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off without losing their jobs. But employers are not required to pay their workers during leave, and often do not.

The plan, which Mr. Obama will include in his budget, would provide $2.2 billion in mandatory funding — not subject to annual congressional appropriations — to reimburse states that initiate paid leave programs, the White House said. The president will also request $35 million in grants to assist states working toward creating such programs.

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"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," said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, an architect of the sick-leave legislation that Mr. Obama is seeking.

The president will call on states and local governments to pass similar legislation.

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Betsey Stevenson, a member of Mr. Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, said evidence showed that paid-leave programs had helped workers in several states and localities, including California, Connecticut and San Francisco, without harming employers' bottom lines.

Ms. Jarrett noted that Massachusetts voters, who elected a Republican governor in November, also endorsed an initiative to allow workers to earn paid sick leave. "This is not a partisan issue; this is a family issue, and it's an economic issue," she said in a conference call to detail the plan.