Obama Pushes for Paid Leave Policies for Workers

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President tries to push Congress towards more generous paid sick leave for all American workers.

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The Obama Administration ramped up its efforts to reform paid family and medical leave policies by proposing legislation that would fund state-level paid leave programs and expand employer leave policies for both private and public sector workers.

The President’s budget proposal for 2016 allocates $2 billion towards state programs that provide paid leave to private sector workers caring for newborns or sick family members. The Paid Leave Partnership Initiative, if Congress adopts it as proposed, will be administered by the Department of Labor and will provide financial assistance to up to five states that wish to launch paid leave programs. Less than 1% of the proposed $2 billion will go to federal administration of the programs. The remainder of the funding will be used to support states in the initial set-up of the program and to reimburse states for half of the benefits paid to workers for the first three years.

State programs funded by the initiative would provide paid leave to employees for reasons covered under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including time off for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for sick family members. FMLA regulations require employers to allow their workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or family members, but, often, this requirement falls short of meeting workers’ needs because some families cannot afford unpaid leave. As modern families’ needs evolve, workers find themselves needing more flexibility to care for themselves, their children, and their elderly relatives. Currently, only California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer state-sponsored paid family and medical leave programs.

The administration’s research identified important benefits of paid leave programs. Paid leave is expected to increase participation in the workforce, especially among women. It also may benefit children’s health by giving working parents flexibility to care for and bond with newborns and newly adopted children. Business groups have had varied reactions to past attempts at mandating paid sick leave at the state and local levels. Critics of government-mandated paid leave fear it may force smaller businesses to cut jobs or pay lower wages, while supporters tout benefits such as increased employee retention and productivity.

The Obama Administration has pushed to lay the groundwork for more flexible leave policies for some time. Although Congress has not yet approved the President’s proposal to subsidize paid leave programs, the administration has already begun to reform leave policies for federal workers.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama spoke extensively about the importance of supporting middle class workers and their evolving family needs. In the week prior to the State of the Union, the President announced proposed legislation that would provide six weeks of paid administrative leave for federal workers following the birth or adoption of a child. In the meantime, the President issued a memorandum directing federal agencies to change their personnel policies to allow six weeks of advanced paid sick leave for federal employees with a new child. This is an advanced leave policy, which means that employees can take this paid time off even if they have not already accrued it. Although agencies already have the ability to grant advanced leave, the President’s memorandum removes agency discretion in denying such requests and allows workers to take future sick leave days that they have not yet earned.

Proponents of paid parental and medical leave argue that policies for federal workers are skewed. Employees cited for misbehavior can get up to one year of paid administrative leave while on probation and, even though federal employees can take some paid sick and vacation days, the government offers no paid time off specifically for parental or family leave.

The President’s memorandum only affects federal employees and is only a small step towards more flexible leave policies for American workers. Although some private sector companies provide generous parental leave policies, reforming leave policies across the board for all private sector workers may ultimately require new legislation from Congress. In addition to proposing the Paid Leave Partnership Initiative, the President has also called upon Congress to pass a law requiring all employers to allow workers to earn seven days of paid sick leave each year.

Some members of Congress have introduced legislation aimed at promoting paid leave policies in the private sector, including a bill that would grant compensatory time rather than overtime wages for overtime hours worked. At least one advocacy group has voiced opposition to this bill on the grounds that workers need both wages and leave time, while other critics argue that this legislation might lead employers to pressure employees into working unpaid overtime hours. Other proposed legislation would provide tax credits to employers with paid family leave policies.