By Lydia Wheeler – 01/15/15 01:38 PM EST
President Obama moved Thursday to give federal employees paid leave benefits as part of a workforce-wide push to bring the United States in line with longstanding standards in most other nations.
The initiative, the latest in Obama's campaign to increase middle-class standards of living, was cheered by women's and employee organizations that have called upon the government to adopt mandatory paid leave for years.
“This is an issue that spans geography, spans demographics,” Obama said Thursday after he stopping for lunch at Charmington’s Café in Baltimore, Md. where he spoke with a school nurse, a small business owner and a mother of two.
“Working families, middle-class folks all across the country are concerned about it. And the good news is we really can do something about it,“ he said.
In the Oval Office Thursday morning, Obama signed a memorandum to ensure federal employees get at least six weeks of paid leave after giving birth. He also called on Congress to tack on another six weeks through legislation and pass the Healthy Families Act to give U.S. citizens the ability to earn seven days of paid sick time off a year.
At the state level, he proposed allocating $2.2 billion in the 2016 budget to help states study how to create their own paid leave programs and released another $1 million through the Department of Labor to help that effort this year.
With an economy that’s seen 58 straight months of job growth, Obama said now is the time to make sure the economy is benefitting everyone.
“And by adopting this working families agenda, thinking about how we can provide more flexibility to families, thinking about how we can make sure that moms and dads don't have to choose between looking after their kids and doing what they need to do at work, thinking about all those families that are now trying to care for an aging parent — that kind of flexibility ultimately is going to make our economy stronger and is just one piece of what needs to be a really aggressive push to ensure that if you work hard in this country then you can make it,” he said.
The National Partnership for Women and Families said Obama’s push is the boldest action in support of family friendly workplace policies it has seen in generations.
“As a large and growing body of research, and the experiences of millions of workers and businesses show, policies that enable workers to care for themselves and their families without risking their jobs or economic security are good for workers, families, businesses and our economy,” said partnership President Debra Ness. “The president has made his priorities clear. The nation will be much better off if Congress follows his lead.”
Echoing the partnership, the National Active and Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) Association called the president’s memorandum a good start, before urging Congress to act.
“More and more private employers around the world are offering parents paid time off so they can take care of their newborns,” NARFE President Richard G. Thissen said.
“As a result, federal agencies can't compete with the private sector for talented younger workers who, if electing federal employment, would have to use accrued vacation or sick time, which may be only a few days, or forgo pay in order to take time off after the birth of a child.”
But not everyone agrees with a federal mandate.
The Independent Women’s Forum said a paid leave law would make hiring more expensive and employment contracts more rigid.
“While we recognize that all Americans — men and women — bneed to be able to take time off from work to address personal matters — care for children, aging parents or manage other life challenges — President Obama’s push for the Healthy Families Act is yet another 'one-size-fits-all' mandate that would hurt more Americans than it would help, especially women,” said the forum’s executive director, Sabrina Schaeffer.
“While a guaranteed leave benefit may sound nice, we ought to consider the costs and unintended consequences that come with government-mandated leave policies.”
Opponents of the law say businesses should be left to decide their own personnel policies. Paid leave is expected to be a big pocketbook issue for Democrats in the 2016 election cycle. Potential presidential candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), though she says she’s not running, have voiced support for the proposal.