President Obama on Monday unveiled a new executive order requiring federal contractors to provide paid sick leave, a small but resonant stride in the administration’s larger push to humanize some aspects of the American labor market.
Obama promoted the move during a Labor Day trip to Boston, where the president joined union leaders at a rally and breakfast. In his animated, 30-minute speech, he also renewed his call on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would provide sick leave to most of the private sector. That legislation would end America's dubious distinction as the only industrialized country on Earth without a mandatory safety net for workers who need to care for themselves or others.
Monday's executive order will also allow workers to take paid time off to recover from domestic violence, sexual assault or deal with issues related stalking. The move is the latest in a series of executive actions that the president has used to rewrite the rules of the workplace.
"If I were looking for a good job that lets me build some security for my family, I’d join a union," Obama said Monday at the Greater Boston Labor Council Labor Day Breakfast. "If I wanted somebody who had my back, I'd join a union."
"Even Brady's happy he's got a union," Obama said of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose four-game suspension was upheld by the NFL last week. "They had his back. So you know if Brady needs unions we definitely need unions."
Obama has raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for companies in contract with the federal government. He's bolstered overtime pay protections for all private sector workers. Under the Obama administration all federal employees are also guaranteed up to six weeks of paid paternity or maternity leave.
"We can do better," White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett said on a call with reporters Sunday. "While we're waiting for Congress to do their job, President Obama is doing what he can."
The latest order is relatively modest in its action. It provides sick leave to only about 300,000 workers, and only incrementally. For every 30 hours worked, the employees would be given an hour of paid sick leave, an exchange rate that adds up to about seven days a year for a full-time worker.
The order will do nothing for the estimated 44 million private sector workers without paid leave, and it will not take effect until 2017, at which point Obama won't be in office and a new president could easily revoke the action.
Labor secretary Thomas E. Perez has been working to make sure that doesn't happen. For most of the last year he's been traveling the country, collecting stories of people who have had their lives upended by illnesses that temporary prevented them from working. “We live in a modern world, but our family and medical leave policies are stuck in the ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ and ‘Leave It to Beaver’ eras,” he said on Sunday.
But Congress seems unlikely to accept that argument, because many businesses favor a free market approach that leaves wages and benefits up to the famed invisible hand of capitalism. Under this logic there is no need for government intervention.
If the workers are "worth it," then the market will automatically force companies to provide things like paid leave and a higher minimum wages. Alternatively, if sick leave is actually a good business practice -- a boon for both productivity and retention, as the Obama administration argues -- then the companies will offer such policies voluntarily.
Both the House and Senate are controlled by Republican majorities that hold such positions. Some Democrats share the same view. And from this perspective, President Obama's interventions into the labor market seem like a burden on businesses, and a hand-out to employees.
However, there are signs that this kind of thinking is shifting, at least among voters. The Obama chose Massachusetts because residents there overwhelmingly approved a measure that provides a full week of sick leave to at all but the smallest companies. It went into effect on July 1 without incident.