By STEVEN MUFSON and JULIET EILPERIN
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed a memorandum Thursday directing agencies to advance federal workers up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or ill family members.
The move came as Obama also called on Congress to approve the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee millions of workers up to seven days of paid sick time a year. Further, he asked for passage of legislation to provide federal workers with six weeks of paid administrative leave to be used for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.
To highlight the importance of paid leave, Obama met Tuesday with three women in Charmington’s, a cafe in Baltimore whose owners are proponents of raising the minimum wage and providing sick leave to employees. The women included Amanda Rothchild, a co-owner and managing partner of Charmington’s; Mary Stein, the mother of two grown children and a school nurse; and Morvika “Vika” Jordan, the mother of two teenagers who took just two months maternity leave when her daughter was born because she needed the income from her job.
After the meeting Obama noted that the women had witnessed this challenge firsthand, “So this is an issue that spans geography, spans demographics.”
Given recent economic gains in the United States, the president said, “Now we have to make sure that the economy is benefiting everybody.”
“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 new memorandum, titled “Modernizing Federal Leave Policies for Childbirth, Adoption and Foster Care to Recruit and Retain Talent and Improve Productivity,” will allow federal employees to take up to six weeks of paid sick leave, even if they have not yet accummulated that much time off. Essentially, they would be borrowing from sick leave earned in the future.
Federal employees earn 13 sick days a year. Federal agencies already may advance sick leave to employees for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, childbirth and adoption. The memorandum essentially removes agency discretion to deny an employee’s requests.
By contrast, administrative leave is general paid time off.
The administration also proposed using more than $2 billion in new funds to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs as part of its upcoming budget, and it announced that the Labor Department will use $1 million in existing funds to help state and local governments conduct feasibility studies on the issue.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday evening, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Council of Economic Advisers member Betsey Stevenson said that the expansion of paid leave would improve worker productivity and make U.S. businesses more competitive.
“The fact is this is not a partisan issue. It’s a family issue, and it’s an economic issue,” said Jarrett, who outlined the plan in an article on the LinkedIn network. She added that many employers “recognize that adopting new policies to better support working families is both good for business and good for workers.
Jarrett noted that 43 million private-sector workers in the United States are without any form of paid sick leave.
Stevenson said several studies suggest that paid sick and parental leave had improved workplaces across the country without harming these firms’ economic output. Connecticut adopted a paid leave policy two years ago; two-thirds of employers recently reported that they had experienced little or no negative effects, while three-quarters of them expressed support for the policy.
Stevenson said California adopted a paid leave policy six years ago that has “helped lower-income women who were less able to afford taking unpaid leave prior to the law under [the Family and Medical Leave Act] to … take time off to care for and bond with their infants.”
Jarrett’s comments came in an article titled “Why We Think Paid Leave is a Worker’s Right, Not a Privilege.”
“Only three states — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — offer paid family and medical leave,” she wrote. “The United States remains the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave.”
Not everyone embraced Obama’s proposal. Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, warned in a statement, “companies that don’t provide leave will face new costs that they may not be able to absorb without eating into workers take-home pay, reducing overall leave time, and increasing prices for consumers.”
But the proposal won praise from some federal-workforce-focused groups as well as others.
Janet Kopenhaver, a spokeswoman for Federally Employed Women, an organization that supports women in the government, said it has supported a Paid Parental Leave bill for many years.
And Debra Ness, president of the advocacy group National Partnership for Women &Families, called the president’s plan “the boldest action in support of family-friendly workplace policies we have seen in a generation.”