On Labor Day, Obama Rallies for Sick Days That Won’t Slash Paychecks

In a speech in Boston, the president unveiled a new requirement for federal contractors.
(Photo: Tony Anderson/Getty Images)
Sep 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

On Labor Day, President Barack Obama made his latest push to improve benefits and increase paid time off for the American workforce.

During a breakfast gathering of union leaders in Boston, Obama announced that on the plane ride to Massachussetts, he’d signed an executive order mandating that federal contractors extend up to seven paid sick days a year to their employees.

His frank address invoked the the plight of low-income workers rarely discussed in presidential speeches: parents forced to decide between getting paid or staying home with an ill child; victims of domestic violence or sexual assault who can’t get help because they have no paid time off from work; feverish waiters forced to serve tables because they’ve got to pay their rent.
The new policy, which will allow workers to accrue an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours on the clock, is expected to benefit an estimated 300,000 workers who previously had no paid time off for sick days. It will go into effect with the federal budget in 2017, after Obama leaves the White House.

Executive orders have become increasingly less common since President Franklin D. Roosevelt set an all-time record of 3,721. Obama has signed little over 200 such orders, and at the current rate gives them out less frequently than any other president dating back to Grover Cleveland, according to the University of California’s American Presidency Project.

“I believe that working Americans should have the basic security of paid leave,” Obama told the packed room on Monday, weaving in a string of stunningly dismal statistics about the broader state of American workers: 44 million people lack access to paid sick leave, just 12 perecent of private-sector workers have accesss to paid family leave, and nearly one in four working moms return to work within two weeks of childbirth.

The figures helped drive home a key fact that has become fodder for comedy routines by the likes of Last Week Tonight host John Oliver: The United States is the only advanced nation on the planet that does not guarantee paid maternity leave for all its workers. It’s also the only wealthy nation that fails to guarantee some form of paid sick leave to its workers, according to an analysis of 22 countries by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“Think about that,” Obama urged, reiterating remarks he made during his State of the Union address in January when he pushed for the Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act and Healthy Families Act. The bills, aimed at expanding paid sick and family leave to federal and non-federal workers, respectively, have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress.

RELATED: There's Nothing America Won't Do for Its Mothers—Except Give Them Paid Maternity Leave

“Unfortunately, only Congress has the power to give this security to all Americans,” Obama said on Monday, making an appeal to Republicans to work in a bipartisan fashion. “It’ll be good for business, not bad for business,” he added. The executive order garnered support from family advocacy groups including MomsRising and Family Values, which heralded it as a positive example for Congress and individual states to follow.

It comes on the heels of a series of plans aimed at boosting working conditions in America, including a June proposal for extending overtime pay. Massachusets is one of just four states that have passed legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick time.