By Casey Leins
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed multiple policies to aid the middle class, including paid family and medical leave for American workers.
Obama’s Healthy Families Act would allow American workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year.
While some people say the paid leave will make life easier for families because workers will no longer have to choose between caring for their loved ones or putting food on the table, others say it targets women as ‘victims’ and reduces employment opportunities.
“[Not having paid sick leave] means that no matter how sick they are, or how sick a family member is, they may find themselves having to choose to be able to buy groceries or pay the rent, or look after themselves or their children,” Obama said at an event in Baltimore on Jan. 15.
Many people who support the legislation believe these sick days are necessary to ensure productivity in the workplace and to prevent employees from catching illnesses from their coworkers.
“Millions of Americans literally can’t afford to get sick,” Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a statement. “Ultimately, when a sick employee can’t afford to take a sick day it hurts the businesses’ bottom line."
Ensuring paid sick days and Obama’s other initiatives, including investing in community colleges, are “fundamental changes that will make our nation stronger as a whole,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said in a press release in response to the president’s speech.
In addition to paid sick days, Obama also wants Congress to allow six weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave for all workers. On Jan. 15, Obama signed a presidential memorandum guaranteeing federal workers six weeks of paid leave if they have a new child.
The U.S. is the only high-income country that does not guarantee paid leave for workers with new children, The New York Times reported. Obama’s six week proposal is slim in comparison to laws in Great Britain and Italy, which allow new mothers 52 weeks and 22 weeks of paid leave, respectively.
“It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us,” Obama said during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. “It’s often an economic necessity today for both parents in a household to work.”
Still, some opponents argue that both paid sick leave and paid family leave would negatively impact businesses. Small businesses that are struggling to expand might not be able to grow and might be forced to cut down their workforce or lower wages to keep up with government regulations, Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, tells U.S. News.
And while paid leave affects both men and women, some argue women are more impacted when it comes taking care of a new baby. Because of this, legislators try to appeal to female voters through maternity leave proposals and often make the issue seem larger than it really is, Schaeffer says.
The bigger issue, Schaeffer says: If businesses can’t afford to pay employees for maternity leave, the new mothers might lose their jobs altogether.
“It sounds bad to have a job without paid leave—but it sounds worse to tell a woman she doesn’t have a job at all,” Schaeffer said in a statement.
House Republicans were set Wednesday to introduce the Working Families Act as an alternative to Obama’s ideas. The bill would allow private sector employees to decide between being paid overtime or accruing paid time off, the U.S. House said on its website.
“Employers are drowning in enough red tape and workers have seen their hours reduced thanks to this administration’s attempt to dictate how the workplace operates,” said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala.
But Americans are in favor of policies that protect workers to ensure fair pay, according to a poll released on Wednesday by the Make It Work Campaign. Eighty-one percent of respondents said workplace regulations to ensure equal pay, paid days to help family members and affordable childcare are good for the country, The Washington Post reported. The majority of respondents also said they are in favor of paid sick days.