Obama’s Plan To Give Workers Time Off

Paid Leave

Earlier this week, Obama announced his support for the Healthy Families Act:

The legislation calls for businesses with 15 or more employees to let them accrue up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or a family member who falls ill. On a call with press, adviser Valerie Jarrett said the White House estimates that it would give 43 million workers access to leave who don’t already have it. The leave could also be used by victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking to recover or seek assistance. Obama will also urge states and local governments to pass sick leave laws of their own.

The president will also sign a memorandum that will ensure federal employees get at least six weeks of paid sick leave for the arrival of a new child and propose that Congress pass legislation to give them six weeks of paid administrative leave.

Jared Bernstein sees this as part of a larger strategy:

So the forces of darkness and light will scrum over this stuff and hard to imagine it will get very far in DC, though part of the plan—and the WH is smart to go there—is providing states with some resources to explore the feasibility of introducing some of these measures on their own. But put this together with the Van Hollen tax plan … and you begin to see an interesting dynamic that I suspect we’ll hear more about in next week’s State of the Union speech: the economy is reliably growing, and yet too little of that growth is reaching the middle class. Therefore, policy makers must relentlessly work on the policy agenda that will reconnect growth and more broadly shared prosperity.

Ben Casselman reviews the statistics on paid leave. He finds that “61 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. are offered at least some paid sick time by their employers, and just 12 percent are offered paid family leave”:

Nearly 25 percent of workers in the top 10 percent of private-sector earners get paid leave compared with just 4 percent of workers in the bottom 10 percent. There’s no significant group, however, where a majority of workers get paid family leave. That said, efforts to expand access to paid leave appear to be gaining momentum. A growing list of cities and states have approved measures to require some form of paid leave for many workers. Overall access to paid time off has expanded significantly since the early 1990s, when just 2 percent of workers got paid family leave.

 points out that the “business case for paid sick leave is a strong one”:

Paid sick leave is also, frankly, a public health issue. According to theAmerican Public Health Association, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic “an estimated 7 million additional individuals were infected and 1,500 deaths occurred because contagious employees did not stay home from work to recover.” 1,500 deaths! 1,500 people died because a cadre of mucous troopers were unwilling or unable to stay home while infected with the flu. If a terrorist attack caused 1,500 deaths it would be a national crisis. But when those same deaths are caused by workplace sneezes we shrug.

Joan Walsh is disappointed that “so far [Obama is] not supporting the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act DeLauro is co-sponsoring with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand”:

De Lauro and Gillibrand’s bill is important, however, because it creates a funding mechanism for paid family leave, similar to disability insurance. Employers and employees would contribute two-tenths of one percent of salary – an average of $2 a week for most workers – that would fund leaves up to 12 weeks when an employee has a child or needs to care for a sick family member.

The funding mechanism means employers aren’t paying a full salary at a time when they’re losing a worker for up to three months, which could make it easier to get temporary help. Just as important, family leave becomes an earned benefit, not a top employee perk, not a welfare program, and not a benefit to be cut back in tough economic times.

In a long feature on maternity leave, Claire Suddath provides more background on the bill:

So why is the Family Act at a standstill? Gillibrand says Congress doesn’t think it’s important enough. “The issue isn’t being raised because too many of the members of Congress were never affected by it,” she says, pointing out that 80 percent of Congress is older and male. “They’re not primary caregivers. Most members of Congress are affluent and are able to afford help or able to support their [wives]. It’s not a problem for most of them.” Hillary Clinton has also admitted that while she supports paid leave, it’s a political battle the U.S. isn’t ready to fight. “I don’t think, politically, we could get it [passed] now,” she said in a CNN town hall meeting last June.

Washington won’t be able to ignore this forever. “You’re finally starting to see momentum on this issue,” says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Over the past decade, Ness has noticed that young parents are becoming increasingly angry at the lack of employer support when they start to have children. “This will be part of the conversation during the next election,” she says. “The sleeping giant is waking up.”