In the week before his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama took modest but important steps toward expanding US workers’ access to paid sick and family leave. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, broke the news with a blog post on LinkedIn, where she explained the importance of paid leave:
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.
How many working parents know that sinking feeling from sending their child off to school with a fever? How many Americans have to show up to work when battling an illness even when they know they won’t be at their best, it will lengthen their recovery time, and they may likely spread their sickness to others? And how many moms and dads have been denied the ability to bond with their newborn, or to care for an aging parent, all because they could not afford to miss work? These are real, significant moments in life that nearly everyone faces at some point. The last thing we should do is add guilt, fear, and financial hardship on working parents as they try to do what’s right – while keeping their job.
On Thursday, President Obama did three things:
- Urged Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act – and encouraged cities and states to pass their own laws requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. The Healthy Families Act would require employers with 15 or more workers to allow employees to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, up to seven days per year. The Act was first introduced in Congress by Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Edward Kennedy in 2004; Representative DeLauro and Senator Tom Harkin introduced it in the 113th Congress, but it has not yet been introduced in the 114th Congress.
- Announced a President’s Budget item of $2.2 billion to fund state efforts to create paid medical and family leave programs. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have all established social-insurance programs that use payroll-tax funding to cover a portion of missed pay for workers who need to take time off to care for a new child or another family member with serious health needs. President Obama’s budget will propose funding to help other states follow their examples. (The Department of Labor has already awarded some grants toward this purpose.) I’m surprised that President Obama did not take this opportunity to suggest that Congress pass the FAMILY Act, which would create such a social-insurance system at the federal level. The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb suggested last year that Obama’s silence on this proposal might be due to his reluctance to support anything that qualifies as a middle-class tax increase. If that’s the case, the final two years of a president’s second term seems like an appropriate time for him to start supporting the best policy ideas, even if it leaves him open to criticism about breaking a promise on taxes.
- Supported paid parental leave for federal employees. In a Presidential Memorandum, President Obama directed federal agencies to ensure that employees can be advanced up to six weeks of sick leave for the birth or adoption of a child or for other sick leave eligible uses. This isn’t giving federal employees any more leave than they had before, but essentially allowing them to borrow against future accrued leave, which they will “re-pay” over time. Managers have had the discretion to do this in the past, but I imagine that cultures and practices in some agencies have made some workers fearful of requesting so much advanced leave, and some manager reluctant to grant the requests. The Memorandum directs the Office of Personnel Management to issue guidance on implementation within 90 days, and federal agencies to make any necessary changes to their policies 60 days after that. Only Congress can provide a new benefit of paid parental leave that employees can access in addition to the paid sick days they already earn. President Obama announced that he is proposing legislation, similar to the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act introduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney in the 106th – 113th Congresses, that would allow federal employees six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child.
It’s important for the President to voice his support for state and federal legislation that would advance paid sick, medical, and family leave for the US workforce. The Presidential Memorandum doesn’t give federal employees any new benefits, but I expect that it will result in employees requesting and receiving more paid leave to care for the newest additions to their families. This latest announcement builds on President Obama’s past expressions of support for paid leave, including statements in his 2014 State of the Union address and at the June 2014 White House Summit on Working Families.
Paid sick leave enjoys widespread support, so it’s hardly surprising that a flood of positive reactions greeted President Obama’s latest announcement. The Center for Law and Social Policy commended the White House and noted that paid leave doesn’t only help families, but helps create a more effective workforce – something many employers already recognize:
“The Administration’s support for earned sick days and paid family and medical leave demonstrates a keen awareness of working families’ needs. Millions of Americans are currently losing wages and jobs in order to care for their families and their health,” said Liz Ben-Ishai, senior policy analyst at CLASP. “It is encouraging to see broad support for the president’s actions from all corners of our society, including both workers and employers. In fact, more than 340 employers have signed on in support of local and state earned sick days legislation and a growing number of business leaders are speaking in support of a federal proposal for paid family and medical leave.”
Yesterday, both Small Business Majority and the American Sustainable Business Council released statements in support of the president’s announcement. Business support for paid leave has been building for some time. Speaking about the benefits of earned sick days, Jennifer Piallat, owner of a bistro called Zazie, said: “Paid sick days have helped my workforce be healthy and productive and have helped my bottom line.” Her restaurant is located in San Francisco, which became the first city to pass an earned sick days law in 2007.
The American Public Health Association commended the administration’s proposal and highlighted the importance of paid leave for public health:
“Ensuring access to paid sick and family leave is vital to strengthening the well-being of our workers and their families, especially low-income workers who can least afford to get sick,” said APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, MD. “Not only will it give workers more flexibility in caring for their families, but allowing sick workers to stay home will also help prevent the spread of disease and allow working families time to access preventive care.”
The United States falls behind many other developed countries when it comes to providing paid family and medical leave, and is the only developed country that does not require employers to provide paid sick leave. According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Labor survey, only 12 percent of workers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave through their employers, and less than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through an employer-provided temporary disability program.
APHA supports the Healthy Families Act and adopted a position calling on Congress to pass legislation that would expand paid medical and family leave for U.S. workers. In August 2014, APHA signed on to a letter urging members of Congress to co-sponsor the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act of 2013, or FAMILY Act, which would create a national family and medical leave insurance program.
Of course, one of the most concrete demonstrations of support for paid sick, medical, and family leave is the fact that so many state and local legislatures have been passing their own laws to assure that workers don’t have to choose between their families’ health and their paychecks. Rhode Island’s temporary caregiver insurance system first took effect last year, after legislation passed in 2013. California and Massachusetts recently passed laws requiring employers (with some exceptions) to let workers earn and use paid sick days; both will take effect in July 2015. The growing list of cities with laws requiring paid sick days includes San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; New York City; Jersey City, NJ; Newark, NJ; Eugene, OR; San Diego, CA; and Passiac, NJ. I hope that one day we’ll be able to say that all US employees, regardless of where they live, can take time off work to care for their own health or that of a family member without worrying about missing pay or losing their jobs.