Yesterday, President Barack Obama took the most significant steps yet to push for federally mandated paid leave for all American workers.  In addition to signing a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave to federal employees with a new child, he also called on Congress, states and cities to pass legislation to allow millions of workers to earn up to one week of paid sick time each year.  He also plans to ask Congress for more than $2 billion to encourage states to create paid family and medical leave programs.

So what happened yesterday?

President Signs Presidential Memorandum Providing for Paid Leave and Calls on Congress to Pass Paid Leave Legislation

At the federal level, the President signed a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to allow federal employees to access at least six weeks of paid leave in “connection with the birth or adoption of a child or for other sick leave eligible uses.”

Obama also called on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act (endorsed by the Administration since 2009 when it was first introduced), which would require all businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days, or 56 hours, of paid sick leave to care for themselves or a sick family member, obtain preventive care or deal with domestic violence. Under the Healthy Families Act, employees would earn an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours they work. (Employers that already provide paid sick leave would not have to change their policies as long as the time earned can be used for the same purposes.)

President Calls on States to Provide Paid Sick Leave and Puts Money Behind It

While Congress considers the Healthy Families Act, the President is nudging states and municipalities to do the same. Just under a decade ago, San Francisco became the first city in the country to provide access to earned sick days. Two years later, the District of Columbia followed, passing a paid sick days law that also included paid “safe” days for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to enact a paid sick days law, and it was followed by California and, most recently, Massachusetts.  A number of cities also have recently enacted laws allowing employees to earn and accrue sick leave, including Seattle, Portland, New York City, Newark, San Diego and Oakland.

Many Presidents announce grandiose plans and mandates, only to offer little or no monetary support to get the job done.  This initiative appears to be different. The President promises to propose more than $2 billion in new funds to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor will use $1 million in existing funds to help states and municipalities conduct feasibility studies to figure out how this can be done.  (Details on how the President would raise the $2 billion to help states will be released in his upcoming budget proposal.)

President Makes His Case Through Social Media

You also don’t find many presidential ideas floated or pushed through social media. In a departure from the past, senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett took to LinkedIn earlier this week to rally support behind the President’s call for paid leave. Noting that 40 million private-sector workers don’t have access to any type of paid sick leave, Jarrett said:

At a time when all parents are working in more than 60 percent of households with children (up from just 40 percent in 1965), and 63 percent of women with children under the age of 5 participate in the labor force (compared with 31 percent in the early 1970s), one fact is resoundingly clear: The fundamental structure of our workplaces has simply not kept pace with the changing American family . . . 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.

With the president’s presence on LinkedIn, I guess I should send him a LinkedIn invite. Do you think he’ll connect with a management-side employment attorney?

Impact on Employers

Let’s face it.  With a Republican-controlled Congress, the President’s push for federal legislation on paid sick leave is doomed to fail. Such legislation failed to see the light of day when Democrats controlled Congress, so we have no reason to believe this initiative will gain traction any time soon. In fact, on the very day the President sweetened paid leave for federal workers and called on Congress to require private employers to do the same, the media already was reporting that the Republicans in Congress had rejected the idea and businesses were lining up against it.

Employers, let’s not breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve dodged yet another federally-mandated employment statute or regulation. As we have witnessed over the past few years, due to the inactivity on this issue at the federal level, a growing number of states and local governments will continue to pass their own versions of paid sick leave.  So, be careful what you wish for.  My national clients are (rightfully) bemoaning the administrative nightmare associated with keeping track of every state and municipal leave law — from San Diego, California to Eastport, Maine!  Yet, this state/local activity is precisely what the White House is trying to advance given the lack of Congressional action.  Borrowing a page from the minimum wage playbook, the President is taking the message to the local level, urging states and cities to pass such laws on their own. And he’s putting money behind the effort.

It leads me to ponder: If we’re going to witness a hodgepodge of paid leave laws in ever-increasing numbers across the Union, is this really a better alternative than one federal law (assuming it preempts state law on this issue)?

Let’s discuss.


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