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Obama announcing family leave push

In another preview of his State of the Union speech, the president will push for more sick and parental leave, which disproportionately affects women.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Jan. 8, 2015, in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Jan. 8, 2015, in Phoenix, Ariz.

The Obama administration is taking its longstanding push for paid sick days and parental leave to the next level. The White House will announce Thursday the president's renewed support for legislation for up to seven paid sick days and call for new funds for states to develop their own programs.

The U.S. lags behind every other developed country in the world when it comes to time off for family or medical reasons, including maternity leave. And since, awkwardly enough, the employees without paid family leave include the ones who work for the federal government, President Obama is signing a presidential memorandum that requires agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave for new parents. He has previously supported similar federal legislation introduced by New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney aimed at federal employees.

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In a call with reporters Wednesday evening, White House economic adviser Betsey Stevenson pointed out that research on private and local leave initiatives shows they reduce turnover and increase productivity. In a post published on LinkedIn, senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett was even more emphatic, headlining the piece, “Why We Think Paid Leave Is a Worker's Right, Not a Privilege.”

“We can't say we stand for family values when so many women in this country have to jeopardize their financial security just to take a few weeks off of work after giving birth,” she wrote, a reference to “family values” Republicans who tend to oppose these laws as too onerous on businesses. “We can't say we're for middle-class stability when a man has to sacrifice his economic security to care for his ailing mother.”

Thursday's announcement is the latest installment of the president's preview of his State of the Union address, set to be delivered 9 p.m. Tuesday. Obama has also spoken about housing, increased college access and cybersecurity, among other issues.

Caregiving still disproportionately falls on women and contributes to their stalled economic advancement. To wit, the president’s chosen venue will be a roundtable of women. Female legislators, including Maloney, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro have all led the way on the legislation.

But increasingly, figuring out how to work and care for one's family has become a conversation with and about men, too. “Too often these issues are thought of as women’s issues, which I guess means you can kind of scoot them aside a little bit,” Obama said in June at the White House Summit on Working Families. He added, “Anything that makes life harder for women, makes life harder for families, and makes life harder for children.”

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A White House fact sheet on the president's latest steps also acknowledged that broader reality: “The challenge of balancing work and family has grown as families have shifted so that today in most families all parents work and all parents contribute to caregiving.”

States and cities have been leading the way on legislation addressing those facts. Connecticut passed the first statewide paid sick days law, followed by California, Massachusetts, and a handful of cities, including New York.